Watchdog: Interior thought mountaintop mining study wouldn't 'produce any new information’

Watchdog: Interior thought mountaintop mining study wouldn't 'produce any new information’
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Interior Department officials canceled a major mountaintop removal mining study because they didn’t think it would yield new findings, the agency’s internal watchdog said.

Mary Kendall, Interior’s deputy inspector general, explained the finding in a letter to Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), which Grijalva released Tuesday.

Interior officials had never publicly given that reasoning previously, saying only that the funding for the study that was being conducted by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NAS) was undergoing financial review.

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But Kendall’s staff also found that Interior did not have documentation to justify their conclusion that the study wouldn’t yield new information.

“Other than a general document entitled ‘Secretary of the Interior’s Priorities,’ departmental officials were unable to provide specific criteria, used for their determination whether to allow or cease certain grants and cooperative agreements,” Kendall wrote to Grijalva.

“Departmental officials decided to halt the study because they did not believe it would produce any new information and felt the costs would exceed the benefits,” she said.

Interior had already paid out $455,110 of the $1,003,553 cost of the study, money that Kendall concluded “was wasted because no final product was produced.” The rest of the money is expired and cannot be spent, she said.

NAS announced in August 2017 that the money had been halted. The research project was meant to examine potential health impacts on people who live near mountaintop removal, a coal-mining process in which large volumes of earth are moved to get to coal.

Democrats and environmentalists have accused the Trump administration of blocking the study because they see it as a threat to their pro-fossil-fuel agenda.

Grijalva, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said Kendall’s letter shows that Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeAlaska oil and gas lease sale nets .5 million Former Koch adviser to oversee Interior Department's FOIA requests The Year Ahead: Dems under pressure to deliver on green agenda MORE and his staff lied about their reasoning for halting the research.

“This administration does whatever it wants and lies to the public about it, and their attitude is that the public will just have to deal with it,” Grijalva said in a statement.

“Republicans in Congress have shown they couldn’t care less about conducting real oversight. As long as Trump’s party is in power in Washington, more money will disappear, more lies will follow and there will be no accountability.”

Kendall also looked into how Interior halted another NAS study, this one examining the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s (BSEE) inspection program for offshore oil and natural gas drilling rigs.

Kendall found that Interior halted the research because of a disagreement between headquarters in the Washington, D.C., area, and the agency’s New Orleans office over how comprehensive the study should be.

BSEE plans to restart the study sometime this year, though Kendall found that NAS might have to start from square one if the parameters are changed.