Whitesburg KY

Credibility needed

As he juggles an economic crisis and a couple of wars while getting to know world leaders, President Barack Obama probably isn’t worrying too much about who will run a small federal agency that has a big impact on the quality of life in Appalachia.

But maybe if he thinks of the decision as economic stimulus …

One of the great things about appointing someone who would actually enforce the 32-year-old Surface Mining and Reclamation Act is that it would create jobs — heck, let’s call ’em “green jobs” — in the coalfields.

Either of the candidates for director of the Office of Surface Mining whose names have been publicized would be a gigantic improvement over the agency’s past leadership.

Joe Childers, a Pikeville native who practices law in Lexington, knows the federal surface-mining law inside out. He also knows the people and the places that live every day with the effects of mining. He has advocated for people whose property and water have been hurt by mining and helped lead the campaign that forced the industry to pay property taxes on coal reserves.

Kentuckians especially appreciate the leading role that Childers played in the 1980s in ridding the state of the notorious broad-form deeds that allowed coal companies to strip-mine land without the owner’s permission.

That someone with Childers’s record and integrity is a serious contender for the job is enough to make many Kentuckians cheer.

West Virginians think as highly of the other known contender, West Virginia University law professor Pat McGinley. the grandson of a coal miner who has also represented people hurt by the mining industry and is an expert on mining law.

What Obama must not do is appoint anyone from inside OSM or the coal industry.

OSM has suffered from a cozy relationship with the industry since the Reagan years. But the rot became putrid during the Bush years when the tone at OSM was set by Deputy Interior Secretary Stephen Griles, a former coal industry lobbyist who was sentenced to prison for his links to corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramhoff.

OSM needs and deserves fresh new leadership that will reverse the industry trend of replacing workers with ever larger earth-moving machines.

If OSM finally begins enforcing the law, coal companies will need more workers and engineers to minimize the footprint of surfacemining operations and restore mined land to its natural height and shape. That’s nothing more than what the law, which OSM has never enforced, requires.

But OSM laid down for the coal industry as what’s commonly referred to as mountaintop removal became the norm. Instead of compacting and replacing the tons of soil and rock removed by mining, coal companies dump it into huge, loose fills, flattening mountains and destroying headwater streams that protect against flooding and provide the biological building blocks for clean water.

It’s rare that you can see a crime from the air. But anyone who flies over eastern Kentucky or southern West Virginia will gawk at this one.

Obama must appoint a credible leader at OSM.

— The Lexington Herald-Leader

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