Is help from a federal agency a "charade'?

  Is the federal Office of Surface Mining (OSM) a pawn of the mining industry? The Denver-based Citizens Coal Council says "yes' and points to documents it obtained by filing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.


The Citizens Coal Council, a federation of 48 citizens' groups in 21 states, sued the OSM to release its files. Last April, the U.S. District Court in Denver ordered the agency to pay the council $5,200 in attorney's fees and court costs, and to turn over documents outlining the bonuses it gave some of its employees.


The documents show that between 1994 and 1997, OSM, whose mission is to "protect citizens and the environment during mining," paid over $20,000 to two employees who had held coal companies blameless for damaging homes.


One case involved Ann and Jim Tatum, who sued Basin Resources in 1997 and won $160,000. The couple said the company tunneled near their Weston, Colo., house, causing walls to crack, and they pressed their case in state court after losing agency appeals (HCN, 9/14/98). OSM documents show that the agency awarded engineer Mike Rosenthal a bonus of $910 for "efforts including, specifically, the investigation and testimony in connection with Tatum V. Basin Resources." Rosenthal had testified that mining wasn't the culprit.


Though the Tatums won their case, Ann Tatum says she's angry that a tax-supported agency sided with a coal company. She calls the OSM's attempt to defend the public "a charade." The OSM's Rosenthal said he did not support the mining company in his testimony; he merely testified about a report he wrote. Rosenthal also denied that his agency gives incentives for siding with the industry. "We are paid whether we testify for the citizens or the coal company," he says.


The Coal Council says another example of agency bias occurred on the Navajo Reservation in the mid-1990s. Some residents said that coal-company blasting had cracked the foundations of their homes and broken out windows. Council members cite the Energy Policy Act of 1992, which requires coal companies to make repairs, or compensate residents whose homes suffer damage from nearby mining - regardless of how the homes are built. OSM staffers Rosenthal and Billie Clark, however, said any damage was a result of improper construction and not blasting by a coal company. Both received multiple awards and bonuses for their work; homeowners received no compensation from the coal company.


For more information, contact Carolyn Johnson at the Citizens Coal Council, 1705 South Pearl St. Suite 5, Denver, CO 80210 (303/722-9119), or Mike Rosenthal, OSM, 303/844-1400, ext. 1453.


*Keri Watson


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