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Obama official who led stream rule: Congress waging 'war against coal country'

Former U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement Director Joseph Pizarchik saw one of his agency's most controversial regulations across the finish line only weeks ago. Now, Congress is sprinting to get it off the books.

"The rule is good for coal country," Pizarchik said of the Stream Protection Rule. "It's good for the coal mining operators, particularly the responsible operators. It's good for citizens because it prevents the destruction of the water resources and the pollution of the water there and the people who get their water downstream of coal mines."

He added that the rule ensures land is restored to its original productivity and eliminates uncertainties for operators regarding compliance with the Endangered Species Act. OSMRE sought to "improve the balance between environmental protection and providing for the nation's need for coal as a source of energy," but the rule has drawn sharp criticism from the industry.

"The stream protection rule is a thinly veiled attempt to wipe out coal jobs," U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a tweet on Feb 1. "We will repeal it today."

Pizarchik, an appointee of President Barack Obama, said he would hope Congress could look rationally at the rule. However, he said, he fears that the Republican-controlled Congress has "been waging war against coal country" by denying reclamation aid and support for clean coal technology and may continue to do so by blocking the Stream Protection Rule.

"I would hope that every member of Congress — regardless of their party — that they would put the interest of the people of coal country and the coal mine operators ahead of political partisanship and propaganda and actually take the time to look at the rule and read what's in it," Pizarchik told S&P Global Market Intelligence. "This rule will not kill coal mining. This rule strikes an appropriate balance and it protects the responsible mine operators from being taking advantage of by the bad actors."

He claims numerous mine employees, mine site managers and supervisors who live and work in coalfield communities are supportive of the rule.

"There are good operators out there who are attempting to do this," Pizarchik said. "That is also why the Stream Protection Rule is important for energy. Those operators who are responsible and restoring all the land uses for reforesting the land and preventing the destruction of streams, they stand to benefit from this by not being undercut by those bad actors who are willing to destroy water resources, not put the land back to its uses and put corporate profits over coal country and the people who live there."

Pizarchik worries Congress is losing sight of the idea that "a community without water is a community without a future." However, the coal industry has pushed back hard.

"The Obama administration's so-called Stream Protection Rule, which bans the utilization of the longwall mining system beneath dry ditches, which are often 1,000 feet below the surface, is flagrantly illegal, with no environmental benefit whatsoever," a Murray Energy Corp. spokesman recently told S&P Global Market Intelligence. "This unlawful and destructive rule is nothing but a thinly veiled attempt to destroy our nation's underground coal mines and put our nation's coal miners out of work."

Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray has argued that the rule would effectively ban the practice of longwall mining in America. However, Pizarchik said that any operator saying the rule would "completely eliminate 80% of the mining or any percentage of that" is actually "completely off base."

"That is total B.S.," Pizarchik said. "There is no basis in fact for that."

Murray Energy, multiple states and the National Mining Association all filed lawsuits that aim to stop the Stream Protection Rule. The NMA called the rule "critically flawed" and an overreach of the government's authority that posed a "significant threat" to the coal industry.

Pizarchik was not among the Obama administration officials who stuck around as President Donald Trump works on appointing new leaders throughout his administration. Glenda Owens, who was Pizarchik's deputy director, is serving as the acting director of OSMRE.

Pizarchik said he is looking for "whatever opportunities are available" to continue to help push the reclamation of lands, protect water resources and other "progressive work restoring the land and protecting water resources." He said he was open to working with "anyone that wants to make sure responsible coal mining occurs."

"I offered to provide assistance to the transition team and advice to any incoming successor," Pizarchik said. "That was politely declined by the transition team."