Trump administration taps coal consultant for mining oversight role

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Trump administration on Thursday named a coal industry consultant and strong supporter of the controversial practice of mountaintop mining to head up a U.S. Interior Department agency that oversees mining operations and environmental cleanups.

Steven Gardner of Kentucky, an engineer and mining specialist who runs consultancy ECSI Llc, was nominated to be director of the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), the latest Trump administration appointee with ties to the industry he or she would regulate. Congress must approve the nomination.

During the Obama administration, Gardner fought OSMRE’s moves to update a federal stream protection rule that regulated mining close to streams. Congress revoked that rule in February.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke welcomed Gardner’s nomination, and said the Lexington, Kentucky, native will help the agency carry out its “energy dominance” agenda.

“Steve is highly regarded in the mining industry for his extensive experience and insight,” said Zinke.

In the same news release, Hal Quinn, chief executive of the National Mining Association lobbying group, said: “America’s mining industry welcomes Steve Gardner’s nomination to become the next director of OSMRE.”

Gardner has been an outspoken critic of what he termed the “war on coal,” which he said in a 2014 opinion article in the Lexigton Herald was waged by “activist groups, agencies and many in the press.”

“I have seen the combatants and the casualties,” he wrote.

Gardner also supports the practice of mountaintop removal, a form of surface mining at the top of a mountain or ridgeline that environmentalists say harms the landscape and water supply.

The Interior Department in August ordered researchers to stop work on an independent evaluation of potential health effects from mountaintop removal coal mining.

Environmental and grassroots groups criticized Gardner’s nomination, and said he is likely to side with industry at a time that the agency is supposed to focus on enforcing mine reclamation and cleanup work.

“How can someone with his focus on defending the industry at all costs be the right choice for the federal agency in charge of overseeing that industry?” said Davie Ransdell, member of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth and former supervisor at Kentucky Division of Mine Permits.

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Jonathan Oatis