Washington, DC — Agency insiders report that President Obama has asked a Bush holdover to remain in charge of the troubled Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM), according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Glenda Owens has a long record of defending mountain top removal, a controversial form of coal mining. In 2001, President George W. Bush named her OSM Deputy Director, after she had served several years as the lead agency lawyer defending OSM.
During her federal service, Glenda Owens has been one of the top officials fighting legal efforts by conservationists to limit valley fills, delaying reclamation standards and defending Bush cutbacks in clean-ups for abandoned mines. Owens also worked closely with former Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles (a mining lobbyist now serving a prison sentence on corruption charges) to “streamline” strip mining permits by allowing operators to shortcut environmental reviews.
The choice is also somewhat surprising in that presidential candidate Obama spoke out against mountain top removal, saying “We're tearing up the Appalachian Mountains because of our dependence on fossil fuels”, and “We have to find more environmentally sound ways of mining coal, than simply blowing the tops off mountains.” In March, the Obama administration signaled that it might take action to curb mountain top removals but under pressure appears to have backed off.
In tapping Owens, administration officials have passed over two candidates backed by conservation and coalfield citizen groups: Joe Childers, a Lexington, Kentucky, environmental lawyer and .Pat McGinley, a West Virginia University law professor with long experience with coal mining health and safety as well as coalfield reclamation laws.
Even strip mining proponents, such as Natural Resources Committee Chair Nick Rahall (D-WV), concede that OSM is at low ebb. Rep. Rahall was quoted in the April 11th Charleston Gazette as stating:
“The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement has lacked strong leadership for a long time. It has abdicated its responsibility to enforce the surface mining law, to dovetail environmental protection with coal production and jobs. So I think we are at a crossroads here. We can either have a strong leader at the helm who will conduct necessary oversight and enforcement or watch the agency continue to sink in a quagmire of ineptitude.”
“It is hard to imagine a poorer choice to lead this troubled agency,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization backs McGinley for the post. “Glenda Owens in no way resembles the type of change that Barack Obama promised to bring.”