Environment

The Kentucky engineer President Donald Trump nominated to lead a federal mining regulation agency withdrew his nomination over issues with the vetting process.

Trump tapped Steven Gardner, CEO of Lexington consulting firm ECSI LLC, to lead the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement last October. Gardner has more than four decades of experience working with and advocating for the mining industry.

Environmental advocates expressed concerns that Gardner’s close ties with the mining industry might lead to weakened standards at the agency, which is designated to protect society and the environment from the adverse impacts of coal mining.

Gardner withdrew his nomination after a year of negotiations with the Office of Government Ethics over conditions of an ethical agreement.

University of Kentucky

Steve Gardner

“It was an intriguing possibility,” but ultimately it came down to a financial decision, he said.

Initially, the Office of Governmental Ethics told Gardner he could keep his business, then said he had to sell it within 90 days of entering the office then later told him he had to sell before he could be confirmed, Gardner said.

“I feel I could have been of service and made a difference for the country, state governments served by OSM and the industry that is still so vital to the country,” Gardner said in a statement. “It is time to move on to refocus on my business and family and recoup some of the opportunities lost from the last year of uncertainty.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul were among those who praised Gardner’s nomination.

The environmental group The Sierra Club said Trump should never have nominated Gardner in the first place.

In a news release, Sierra Club Appalachian Organizing Manager Bill Price called Gardner a “lifelong servant of the coal industry” that puts profits ahead of the environment as well as the health and safety of coal workers.

“The agency’s next nominee must be someone who respects our laws, follows the science, and understands the realities of what coal mining pollution does to surrounding communities. As a West Virginian, I will demand nothing less to keep my water and air safe for me and my family,” Price said in the statement.

In 2011, Gardner testified before the House Committee on Natural Resources on the Obama administration’s Stream Protection Rule, which tightened regulations on surface coal mining.

The rule went on to be finalized in 2016 before it was overturned by Trump this year. Throughout, Gardner remained a vocal critic.

He has also continued to use the ‘war on coal’ rhetoric, blaming regulations on Kentucky’s loss of mining jobs, though in various pieces Gardner has also acknowledged the role that other forces — like market factors and mechanization — have played.

This story has been updated. 

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.