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December 22 2010

21:00

Coal Lobbyist Grinches Stole 2010 As Obama Transparency Initiative Falters

Despite President Obama’s campaign pledges of government transparency and limiting the influence of K Street lobbyists on policymaking, coal industry lobbyists got their stockings stuffed with wishes this year in Washington.  Climate and energy legislation is dead, the Environmental Protection Agency is entering its 21st year of failing to regulate mercury emissions from coal plants, coal ash regulations are delayed indefinitely, mountaintop removal mining continues, and the myth of “clean coal” is alive and well thanks to continuing praise by President Obama and Vice President Biden.

Happy Holidays!  Here’s a lump of coal, no two, and some coal ash slurry to wash it down with.  Don’t worry, it’s “clean coal!”

The Coal Grinches aren’t here to steal Christmas gifts from Whoville residents.  They’re here to steal a safe climate, clean water and breathable air from every American man, woman and child. And we won’t know when they’ve come and gone, thanks to the White House’s apparent neglect (or shutdown?) of the “open government” records of its meetings with lobbyists. <!--break-->

Arianna Huffington recently pointed out statements that Barack Obama made about government transparency as a candidate and early on in his presidency, noting that he hasn’t followed through on his rhetoric, and in fact seems headed down the well-worn path laid by the transparency-trampling Bush administration.


Back in the year 2007, B.W. (Before WikiLeaks), Barack Obama waxed lyrical about government and the internet: "We have to use technology to open up our democracy. It's no coincidence that one of the most secretive administrations in our history has favored special interest and pursued policy that could not stand up to the sunlight." …
Not long after the election, in announcing his "Transparency and Open Government" policy, the president proclaimed: "Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing. Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset."


Yet here we are closing the books on 2010 and the public is witnessing shockingly little openness and accountability from this, the “transparency” Administration.

The Obama White House has opened its doors wide for coal lobbyists, and his regulatory agencies are struggling to stand up to the onslaught of coal industry lobbying dollars.  Witness the recent and repeated delays and setbacks on critical regulations for dangerous coal industry practices that threaten public health and the environment.

Let’s take a look at coal industry lobbying efforts targeting the White House, or more specifically, at what little we know about just how extensive the reach of coal power players is under Obama’s watch.

OMB “Open Government” Records Scant To Begin With, Increasigly Barren
According to the Office of Management and Budget’s “open” meeting records database, the last publicly recorded meeting between the White House, EPA staff and coal industry lobbyists took place on April 2, 2010.

Since then, we’ve seen zero OMB disclosure of further meetings with coal lobbyists. (Who thinks there haven’t been any?) In fact, there are no records of meetings with outside lobbyists on any solid waste issue since September 22, 2010. Worse, there are few or zero records of any 2010 meeting activity for other White House offices as well. (We know they are holding meetings, after all, that’s what they do.)

OMB records of meetings involving EPA staff and outside lobbyists trail off in May 2010.

And the OMB’s disclosure page for the EPA administrator office’s meetings with outside lobbyists contains a sole archival entry from June 2006. (While the EPA is still reporting the daily schedules of its senior managers on its own, that cumbersome presentation does not distinguish between events, failing to parse actual meetings with outside lobbyists and White House staff, or to disclose the materials distributed to attendees as the OMB’s WhiteHouse.gov records are designed to do.)

Beyond what isn’t included in OMB’s meeting records, it is worth noting what is there is more than a bit outdated.  For example, the scandal-ridden Minerals Management Service is still listed as part of the Department of Interior, even though it was torn apart and renamed in May by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in the wake of multiple embarrassing revelations about MMS’s close relationship with industry lobbyists.

Cass Sunstein, the administrator of OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), has repeatedly extolled the virtues of government transparency and the public’s right to know.

But it seems that a potentially useful tool designed by Sunstein’s office to allow the public access to basic information about meetings between White House and agency staff and outside lobbyists has either been neglected or abandoned entirely.

This lack of disclosure appears to defy the “Open Government Directive” launched a year ago this month by the Obama administration. In practice, our window into the Obama adminstration’s meetings with lobbyists is currently draped with blackout curtains.

Coal Lobbyists Swarmed White House Last Winter
The best indication of how easily coal lobbyists are getting their message across to White House staff comes from last winter, when the coal ash issue was causing a rift between the White House and EPA.  An October 2010 report produced by DeSmogBlog and PolluterWatch documented a lobbying swarm by coal ash interests involving dozens of secretive meetings with White House staff between October 2009 and April 2010.

The result? The coal lobbyists’ White House blitz achieved in short order exactly what the industry wanted by delaying federal regulation of coal ash waste indefinitely. 

Keep in mind that EPA administrator Lisa Jackson first promised a rapid regulatory response on coal ash during her confirmation hearing in January 2009 (on the heels of the December 2008 TVA disaster).  Jackson followed through partially by proposing coal ash rules sixteen months ago, when she promised to issue a decision by the end of 2009.

"We've promised that we will address regulation for coal ash by the end of the year [2009]," Jackson said. "And so, by the end of the year, we'll make that regulatory determination as to whether or not it's hazardous."


Yet EPA just announced another delay this week, stating that the agency has no idea when it will get around to issuing its ruling on whether to classify coal ash as hazardous waste.

The never-ending coal ash battle demonstrates the immense success of coal industry lobbyists in 2010, and yet coal ash is only one – albeit a significant one – of the ongoing threats posed by our addiction to dirty, dangerous coal. 

There’s also the continued assault on Appalachian communities and waterways posed by mountaintop removal mining.

A wise man once remarked:

“We’re tearing up the Appalachian Mountains because of our dependence on fossil fuels.  We have to find more environmentally sound ways of mining coal than simply blowing the tops off mountains.”


What happened to that guy anyway?  Oh, he’s in the White House now.  That was Barack Obama at a campaign rally in Lexington, Kentucky in August of 2007.

How long will President Obama let the coal industry’s lobbyists dictate his policy response to the number one climate killing fossil fuel? How many more pollution-related deaths will result thanks to the lobbying muscle of polluters who are holding Obama’s regulatory agencies captive?

When will the Obama administration provide the records of all the meetings it has held with coal industry lobbyists in 2010 – and all other industry lobbyists for that matter?

The Hill recently reported on a “thaw” in the Obama administration’s relations with K Street.  

“…since Democrats suffered heavy losses in November, lobbyists have seen administration officials more willing to work with business leaders, who are their clients.”


If this is what a thaw looks like, the chilly period sure was balmy. Get ready for a lobbying heat wave in 2011.

Will the Obama team, cowed by coal lobbyists, stand by and let Lisa Jackson get smacked around by the Tea Party thugs in Congress?  If so, who is to be held accountable for the added deaths and impaired lives due to delayed coal pollution control? Congress or Obama himself?

September 14 2010

23:13

U.S. EPA Coal Ash Hearings Intensify, Tennessee Hearing Added Following Controversy

Reversing its embarrassing oversight, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has added one final public hearing on coal ash regulatory proposals, to be held fittingly in Tennessee, the state that suffered the worst coal ash disaster in U.S. history in December 2008.

An EPA spokesperson confirmed that the final public hearing will take place the week of October 25th in Knoxville, Tennessee, although the exact date and location have yet to be announced.

So far, the public hearings on proposed coal ash regulations have been well-attended. ENS reported that the Dallas hearing last Wednesday was "packed" with "hundreds of residents from four states... urging the agency to adopt the stronger of two plans to regulate the waste from coal-fired power plants."

But the intensity of the hearings picked up significantly today in Charlotte, NC, where the comments kicked off with a standing-room-only crowd ready for a marathon 13-plus hour hearing that could possibly stretch until midnight as hundreds of concerned residents, and a handful of coal industry lobbyists, voice their opinions.
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As of 5pm EST, only 120 of the 453 people signed up to comment had been heard from, ensuring a late night ahead. According to hearing attendees I spoke to earlier, the EPA has been very accommodating of walk-ins who did not pre-register to comment, and appears to be making every effort to hear from anyone who shows up.

I have heard several examples of some of the powerful testimony offered by coal ash victims so far today, including a Pennsylvania woman who presented homemade jam and garden vegetables that were grown with water from her coal-ash-contaminated well, asking the EPA officials whether they would eat the products knowing about the contamination.

And of course, Duke Energy, headquartered in Charlotte, has been a hot subject among commenters. Most of the 13 coal ash ponds in North Carolina belong to Duke Energy, and Duke has two coal ash ponds near Mountain Island Lake, the main source of Charlotte's drinking water.

Sierra Club member Bill Gupton testified today that, "These aging coal ash ponds - one built in 1957 - are both still unlined, both are still leaching hazardous substances into the ground and contaminating our ground water - a fact documented by Duke Energy's own data."

Upper Watauga Riverkeeper
Donna Lisenby told me that comments so far have leaned roughly 60-40 in favor of Option C, which would label coal ash as "hazardous waste" and require more federal oversight of coal ash operations. But Lisenby expects that proponents of the industry-friendly Option D will become sparser as the coal lobbyists punch their timecards and head home.

Lisenby reported excellent representation from minority communities in South Carolina who are living with the effects of coal ash every day, and a strong showing of youth traveling from local universities to take part in the hearing. The faith community is also present, including a minister who blessed some people on the forehead with coal ash, Lisenby says.

Appalachian Voices released a statement
this afternoon noting that one of the victims of the 2008 TVA coal ash spill - Steve Scarborough, who owns a house that was damaged in the massive Tennessee coal ash disaster - traveled to Charlotte to testify.

The EPA will hear from a lot more Tennessee victims of the TVA spill, thanks to the belated but wise decision to host the final coal ash hearing in Knoxville, just over an hour's drive from the site of the spill.

U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has applauded EPA's last-minute change of heart.

"The EPA made exactly the right decision. Having hearings on coal ash without asking Tennesseans what they think would be like having hearings on Katrina without asking people in New Orleans what they think, or on the oil spill without asking people who live on the Gulf what they think," Alexander said in a statement.

The Knoxville hearing is sure to have an emotionally-charged atmosphere, since it is closest to the site of the TVA disaster. It is still a 350-mile, six-hour drive away for Uniontown, Alabama residents who live near the landfill that is receiving the coal ash from the TVA spill, but perhaps some will make the journey to comment in front of EPA representatives.

The public comment period closes November 19th, so anyone is welcome to tell EPA what you think about the proposed coal ash regulations.

In the meantime, follow the action in Charlotte by checking out Charlotte Business Journal's live blogging, and follow the action on Twitter via the hashtag #coalash.

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