Embattled mining pick gets 'benefit of the doubt'

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee today approved three of President Obama's energy and environmental nominees, including a controversial mining pick who has drawn fire from environmental groups.

After discussing the complaints against him, the panel agreed to send to the full Senate the nomination of Joseph Pizarchik to be director of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. Two senators opposed the nomination: Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

The committee unanimously approved John Norris to be a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Jose Antonio Garcia to be director of the Energy Department's Office of Minority Economic Impact. The panel originally was scheduled to vote on the three nominees on Sept. 15, but the necessary quorum of senators never gathered.

Pizarchik, director of Pennsylvania's Bureau of Mining and Reclamation since 2002, has been under fire from environmental groups that criticize the agency's policy to bury waste from coal-burning power plants in abandoned mines. Several studies have documented contamination to water supplies from the practice, but Pizarchik has remained a staunch proponent of the policy during his tenure.

Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said the "vast majority" of comments he received on Pizarchik's nomination have been critical, with several hundred e-mails in opposition and dozens of letters in support. He said they came mostly from concerned citizens in coal mining states. But after reviewing Pizarchek's testimony before the committee and 38 pages of detailed questions he answered since then, Bingaman said he was prepared to give the nominee "the benefit of the doubt."


Bingaman emphasized that he was not minimizing the concerns raised, but that he does not agree that all the problems cited could be laid at Pizarchek's door or that the nominee is not up to the task of helming the agency. He added that it is not fair to hold Pizarchek responsible for mining laws passed by Pennsylvania or the federal government.

"Mr. Pizarchek is the president's choice; he is the choice of [Interior] Secretary Salazar," Bingamam said. "For that reason, I will support his nomination."

During his confirmation hearing in August, Pizarchik said the state and his office engaged with all stakeholders concerned about safe management of the waste sites, adding that he based his decisions on high-quality data that ensured the sites did not leach contamination into groundwater sources (E&E Daily, Aug. 7).

When Pizarchek's nomination originally came up for a vote, Lisa Graves Marcucci, a coordinator with the Environmental Integrity Project's Pennsylvania office, said she remained concerned with the nominee's possible confirmation (E&E Daily, Sept. 14).

Pizarchik is also an author of Pennsylvania's Environmental Good Samaritan Act, which helped protect landowners from liability when they voluntarily clean up abandoned mines and oil and gas wells. He helped develop a program for volunteers to clean up abandoned mines and create a program for mine operators to establish trust funds to treat discharges from their mining sites.

FERC, DOE nominees

The committee also approved Norris, Obama's nominee to fill the fifth seat on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. In August, some committee members expressed concerns about proposed FERC authority over interstate transmission lines and the potential that transmission lines for renewable energy could increase coal-fired generation.

"In regards to enabling carbon emission-generation sources to be on the same grid with renewables, we can't control the electrons once they're on the grid," Norris said. "But we need to upgrade our transmission grid. ... We have to upgrade."

Norris is currently Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's chief of staff and previously served as chairman of the Iowa Utilities Board for four years. In 2002, Norris unsuccessfully ran for Iowa's 4th District seat in the House and has worked on several Democratic presidential campaigns.

The committee also advanced Garcia, a former Florida utilities regulator, to be director of the office tasked with building partnerships between DOE and minority institutions and businesses.

The late Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles (D) appointed Garcia to the Florida Public Service Commission in the early 1990s, and in 1998, he became chairman and helped pass the largest electricity rate cut in the state's history, reducing costs to consumers by about $1 billion, according to the White House.

Garcia has more recently been involved in politics. He ran unsuccessfully last year for the Miami-based congressional seat held by Republican Mario Diaz-Balart and is a former chairman of the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party. He has also served as executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation and executive vice president and director of the Hispanic Project for the left-leaning Washington think tank NDN.

Garcia, in a statement to the Senate committee last month, said the United States "cannot afford to continue to underutilize small and disadvantaged businesses, or continue the under-representation of minorities in the technical and scientific work force and industries."

Garcia said he would make it a priority to ensure that minority-owned businesses and minority educational institutions are included in DOE's implementation of the recent economic stimulus law, which steers $38 billion through DOE for an array of renewable energy, energy efficiency and other programs.

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