Proposed BLM/OSM merger draws jeers at Colo. public meeting

Posted: Jan 25, 2012

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A public meeting here on the proposed merger of the Office of Surface Mining and the Bureau of Land Management drew a sparse crowd yesterday, but all those in attendance objected to at least some aspects of the looming union.

The public forum held at BLM's Colorado State Office drew about two dozen attendees to hear a trio of officials from BLM, OSM and the Office of Natural Resources Revenue outline Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's order to realign the two agencies.

The individuals raising objections during the public forum included representatives of Colorado and Wyoming mining associations and the two state governments, along with a former OSM director and her chief of staff.

University of Colorado Law School professor Mark Squillace, who identified his employer but said he was representing his personal views, prompted laughter when he suggested Salazar's proposal had brought together disparate factions including environmentalists and miners.

"I can't think of anybody who thinks this is a good idea outside of the department," said Squillace, who heads the university's Natural Resources Law Center. He later concluded: "Please, take a step back, rethink this whole idea. Let's just scrap it."

Several individuals at the meeting cited specific concerns about the measure's legality under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, including representatives of the two state's mining associations.

"We are concerned about the manner in which this proposal was developed. It was developed essentially behind closed doors," said Colorado Mining Association President Stuart Sanderson, who later added: "Our concern here is some federal super agency of questionable legality will be established."

Sanderson and others also raised alarms over retaining state primacy when applying permitting laws to mines.

"There's also a concern about permitting delays ... there are some notices that require 14 stages of administrative review in Washington, D.C. We would certainly not want to see that applied to the state permitting program out here," Sanderson said.

Wyoming Department of Environmental Equality Director John Corra likewise noted: "These congressionally delegated primacy rules are largely responsible for the success of SMCRA over the years."

While Corra said the proposed merger of administrative functions between the two agencies "makes simple sense," he remained wary of the final product.

"We haven't really seen what this thing is going to look like," Corra said. "We certainly would not want to see increased oversight of state programs."

Other speakers, including former OSM Director Kathy Karpan, who served under then-President Clinton, asserted that if BLM is allowed to absorb the nation's top coal mining regulatory agency, it would make OSM less efficient.

"I believe OSM is a good agency because it is a small agency, I believe it reflects modern management practices," Karpan said, and later added: "OSM is decentralized, it's adaptable, it's flexible, and it's accessible to the constituencies, which are not only the state regulators who deal with these problems ... but with the tribes, with the industry, with the environmental groups ... and I think we ought to allow OSM to continue well in that function.

"It's lean but it's not mean," added Karpan, also a former Wyoming secretary of state.

Margy White, who served as Karpan's chief of staff at OSM and is now a Cheyenne, Wyo.-based attorney, offered one of the few objections to merging even administrative functions, arguing that OSM would lose its budget autonomy.

"This proposal simply does not make sense, none of it," White said, and later added: "It appears to me that someone in Washington saw similar phrases ... and thought, 'Oh, well, these agencies are doing the same thing,' and that is just completely untrue."

"I would urge Secretary Salazar to leave OSM alone, to continue doing its good job with the states and tribes," she concluded.

Although Salazar had initially ordered the merger in November, he responded to concerns about the unification by scheduling a series of public hearings and ordering an Interior Department report on the subject by Feb. 15.

BLM Deputy Director of Operations Mike Pool, who opened the meeting with an outline of the proposed merger, told attendees that the planned alignment is still fluid: "No decisions are final, we are still in the final evaluation stage."

"OSM will continue to be an independent agency outside of BLM, and SMCRA is very clear as to the importance of OSM having a presidentially appointed, Senate [confirmed] director," Pool said.

Although the meeting ended 90 minutes ahead of schedule when no other attendees volunteered public comments, Pool said he was pleased with the meeting's attendance. He noted a Billings, Mont., meeting held Monday had a slightly larger crowd of about 50 individuals. "There's a lot of common themes out there," Pool said at the meeting's end.

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