July 25, 2006 – The nationâ€™s largest environmental group says the Bush administration is burying any hope of implementing better coal-mining policies after nominating an industry-friendly candidate to the federal agency charged with setting environmental standards for surface-mining operations.
- Mountaintop Removal Meets Fresh Resistance in Tennessee* (Nov 15, 2005)
The Sierra Club is opposing Bushâ€™s nomination of John Correll to direct the US Department of Interiorâ€™s Office of Surface Mining (OSM). The environmental watchdog maintains that Correllâ€™s record of weakening industry regulations and dismantling health and safety standards endangers public health and the environment.
Since 2002, Correll has been the deputy assistant secretary for the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), a branch of the Department of Labor that sets standards and enforces safety compliance in the mining industry. Prior to MSHA, Correll held executive and managerial positions in two mining companies: Amax Mining and Peabody Mining, the worldâ€™s largest privately owned coal company.
As director of the OSM, Correll would be joining an agency that already has a reputation in coal country for an apparent allegiance with mining companies. OSM is widely seen as allowing companies to wreak havoc on the environment and sometimes place local residents at great risk. The OSM oversees surface-mining permits and the rehabilitation of land exploited for past mining efforts.
The environmental watchdog maintains that Correllâ€™s record of supporting industry-friendly regulations while dismantling health and safety standards endangers public health and the environment .
As The NewStandard has previously reported, communities in Appalachia suffer especially from the effects of the mining method known as mountaintop removal. The process, which sheers the upper portions of entire mountains and dumps the resulting rubble into valleys, has polluted water and wildlife habitats while leaving residents vulnerable to landslides, flooding and toxic coal sludge â€“ all under the regulatory eye of the OSM.
Bill Price, head of the Central Appalachia environmental justice campaign for Sierra Club, said his group is skeptical that Correllâ€™s track record at MSHA as a "spokesperson for the national mining industry" will change OSM policy for the better.
"Heâ€™s interested in how to advance the industry, and not how to regulate it," Price told TNS.
Price said this nomination is "particularly egregious" given the way Correll helped coal companies by undermining safety regulations for miners while at MSHA.
Correll refused to grant TNS an interview. In a May press release announcing the nomination, Acting Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett said Correll had "a substantive record focused on safety and health in both the public and private sector." While the agency did not provide any details on what that record consisted of, Scarlett did say Correll had been "responsible for management of all aspects" of MSHA.
As deputy assistant secretary, Correllâ€™s duties at MSHA included helping to eliminate fatal mining accidents, reducing the frequency of accidents and minimizing health hazards associated with the industry through safety regulation.
Critics said the nomination of Correll is â€œparticularly egregiousâ€ given the way Correll helped coal companies by undermining safety regulations for miners while at MSHA.
But during Correllâ€™s years at the agency, MSHA withdrew or delayed final action on eighteen mine-safety rules, including the establishment of on-site mine-rescue teams, caches of oxygen and breathing devices for trapped miners and flame-resistant conveyor belts. Price speculated that had these rules been instated, the lives of the fourteen miners killed in the recent Alma Mine and West Virginia Sago accidents may have been saved.
According to the agencyâ€™s own statistics, there have been 35 coal-mining fatalities in the first seven months of 2006.
"Mr. Correll's past actions show a pattern of disregarding the essential safeguards that protect the health, safety and very lives of people," Sierra Club said in a press statement issued last week.
Correll was also a part of MSHA management when a whistleblower made allegations that the agency had covered-up negligence six years ago in the Martin County, Kentucky sludge spill, which sloshed 300 million gallons of coal slurry into the streams of Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia.
In fact, long before Correll took a position with MSHA, he was advocating for weaker coal-mine regulations. In 1998, at a House of Representatives oversight hearing, Correll advocated for "flexible" inspection procedures, calling the standards at the time "disruptive and time-consuming."
The nomination of Correll comes at a time when the Bush administration has stepped up its reliance on coal to meet the countryâ€™s energy demands. According to a 2006 report by US PIRG Research Fund, there are about 150 new coal-fired power plants under consideration.
But as more coal is mined to meet higher demand, an increased number of communities are dealing with the environmental and health repercussions of the industry â€“ the very repercussions that Correll will supposedly be in charge of mitigating or eliminating.