Kentucky man tied to mining business picked by Trump to regulate it

Partners are considering developing a solar farm on reclaimed strip mine sites such as this one in Pike County. Berkeley Energy Group
Partners are considering developing a solar farm on reclaimed strip mine sites such as this one in Pike County. Berkeley Energy Group

The Trump administration has nominated the head of a Kentucky engineering firm to run the federal agency that regulates reclamation of surface mines.

Steve Gardner, president and chief executive officer of Lexington consulting and engineering firm ECSI, has been nominated for the top job at the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a release that Gardner is "highly regarded in the mining industry for his extensive experience and insight."

"Steve will help Interior take the proper steps forward to ensure American energy dominance is achieved, while also being a responsible steward of American lands," Zinke said.

Gardner has served on the University of Kentucky’s Mining Engineering Foundation and the Kentucky Geological Survey.

He has a master’s degree in mining engineering with a graduate certification in environmental systems and a bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering from the University of Kentucky, according to a release from the Interior Department.

Gardner was the 2015 president of the Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration.

Gardner said in a statement that he was honored by the nomination and pledged to “work every day on behalf of the men and women across this country who look to the OSMRE office as a partner in bettering life for all people on mining lands.”

Gardner has been seen as a strong advocate of the coal industry.

He wrote an opinion piece in the Herald-Leader in 2014 that was critical of the surface mining office and the Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama Administration.

“Many in the Environmental Protection Agency have shown a disingenuous attitude and demonstrated hidden agendas,” Gardner wrote, “many times cooperating with environmental activists, showing clear conflicts of interest while reinterpreting longstanding regulatory policy and retroactively changing rules.”

The National Mining Association, along with Kentucky’s two Republican senators — Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul — and 6th District Republican Rep. Andy Barr of Lexington applauded Gardner’s nomination, which must be approved by the Senate.

“The last administration’s OSM ignored science and economics when it worked to put an end to Kentucky coal mining with an overreaching rule on waterways near coal mines,” Paul said in the Interior Department release. “With Mr. Gardner’s background in mining, I am confident that this administration’s OSM will ease up eight years of executive overreach and finally allow Kentucky coal to compete again in our nation’s all of the above energy policy.”

However, environmental groups vowed to oppose Gardner’s confirmation, arguing that Gardner is the wrong person to ride herd on the coal industry’s reclamation practices because he has been such an ardent supporter of the industry.

“Throughout his career, Steven Gardner has shown he will always take the side of the coal industry,” said Erin Savage, program manager for a group called Appalachian Voices that opposes mountaintop-removal mining. “He is not the director Appalachian communities need to protect and advance their future.”

Tom FitzGerald, executive director of the Kentucky Resources Council, said he had known Gardner as a colleague for many years and has been on panels debating coal issues with him.

“I think his great challenge will be stepping out of a role as a very visible pro-coal partisan, into the job heading an agency that was charged with protecting the public and the environment from the adverse effects of surface coal mining,” FitzGerald said. “I wish him every success in making that transition.”

FitzGerald said Gardner will face a particular challenge repairing relationships with OSMRE staffers after allegations that they pressured contractors, including his firm, to manipulate projections on the economic impact of a provision called the stream protection rule.

The Obama Administration argued the rule would help protect streams from mining damage. The Trump Administration and Congressional Republicans scuttled it this year.

The industry said the rule would wipe out thousands of mining jobs.

Bill Estep contributed to this report.