Kentucky Environmental Attorney FitzGerald Rejects Inaugural Federal Award

Kentucky environmental attorney Tom FitzGerald has turned down an award from the federal Office of Surface Mining.

FitzGerald–also the head of the Kentucky Resources Council–was to be the first-ever recipient of the ECHO Award, named for the agency's stated principles of Environment, Community, Humanity, and Ownership. The award was given out yesterday in recognition of the 35th anniversary of the passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, or SMCRA.

But FitzGerald says rather than a time for celebration, SMCRA's 35th anniversary is a “somber reminder” that the act's promises to the coalfields hasn't been kept.

In substantial measure, these promises have been betrayed, and across the nation’s coalfields, communities have borne the burden of the breach of these commitments. The citizens of the coalfields of the eastern and western United States have waited through successive administrations since 1981 to see the promises that Congress made in 1977 fulfilled. In a number of key areas, the failure of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to assure full and fair implementation of the law has betrayed the promise Congress made to those who live in coalfield communities– that they would be protected from harm, that mining would be a temporary use of land, that reclamation would contemporaneously follow excavation of coal, and that the amount of time between disturbance of the earth and completion of reclamation would be minimized. Though Congress intended that the choice of technology would follow, rather than dictate, environmental protection, the coal industry has over the decades systematically replaced the workforce with larger machines more indiscriminate to the terrain, and key concepts in the law have been weakened by regulatory interpretations in order to accommodate this shift.

After FitzGerald turned down the award, the Office of Surface Mining awarded it to David Clark, an environmental regulator from New Mexico. In an e-mail, OSM spokesman Chris Holmes said after FitzGerald indicated he wouldn't accept the ECHO Award, OSM chose another deserving candidate. “Clark led the development of the geomorphic reclamation technique,  a method of reclamation that returns mined lands to the closest form and function of the land before mining,” he wrote. ” Clark’s dedication to reclaiming the land and his 20 plus years of public service exemplify the attributes for which the ECHO Award was created.”

To read FitzGerald's whole letter, click here.

Erica Peterson

Erica Peterson reports on energy and the environment for WFPL.

@ericampeterson

Comments