MAC: Mines and Communities

Former coal lobbyist gets state environmental job in Indiana

Published by MAC on 2009-05-18
Source: Associated Press

MERRILLVILLE, Ind. - A former coal industry lobbyist has been named to a top post with Indiana's environmental agency, an appointment that environmental activists say raises questions about whether he can be objective in his new job.

David Joest, a former registered lobbyist for Peabody Coal Co., became the Indiana Department of Environmental Management's assistant commissioner for the Office of Legal Counsel in April. That post puts him in charge of civil enforcement and criminal investigations of the state's biggest polluters.

IDEM spokesman Barry Sneed said the agency "is fortunate to have someone of his caliber and experience."

But environmentalists say they're baffled by his appointment, which comes as his former employer, Peabody Energy, seeks to start new mines in Indiana.

They question the appointment to IDEM of a man who has made a career fighting environmental agencies and worked to prevent stricter environmental rules in Indiana and Michigan.

On behalf of Peabody Energy, Joest fought legal battles over permits against the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and defended the company against enforcement by IDEM.

"My reaction to Mr. Joest, based on my past history with him, is, he's not the person I'd want in charge of the environmental enforcement of the state of Indiana if you're concerned about us not enforcing environmental laws enough," said Jeff Stant, former executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council.

Stant said that 10 years ago, Joest was "openly hostile to reforms to protect the environment, which were pretty modest in the 1980s."

Joest came to IDEM after serving as an assistant general counsel for DTE Energy in Michigan.

For the previous 22 years, he was an attorney for Peabody Energy in Evansville and Henderson, Ky. In that position, he defended the company in six cases against the DNR in the 1990s, and in 2002 when IDEM approached the company to settle alleged permit violations for which IDEM wanted to assess a fine of $18,000.

Coal mines are primarily regulated by the DNR, but IDEM oversees and regulates activities that can impact air, land and water. Those include monitoring and control of water pollution, control of dust and erosion and reporting and environmental response to accidental spills.

Sneed, the IDEM spokesman, said Peabody "no longer operates mines in Indiana."

But DNR spokesman Phil Bloom said Peabody Energy has a mining permit pending with the Indiana DNR for a mine in Warrick County and has initiated development of another mine.

Environmentalists said Joest's record in the private sector raises questions about whether he could be objective in his new job at IDEM.

"It's not just that he came from a regulated company but that his role was defending the company in certain regulatory matters," said Tim Maloney, senior policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council.

Sneed said that while Joest was practicing in Indiana, "he was instrumental in successfully remediating a former site although regulations did not require it."

"Today, a grassy hill stands where the gob pile once was, preventing acidic drainage to the environment. We anticipate his experience working to protect the environment and in environmental law will benefit the agency and all Hoosiers," Sneed said.

Because Joest did not interact with IDEM while he worked in Michigan for the past 4 1/2 years, he said the agency does not expect any conflicts of interest.

Should a potential conflict arise, Sneed said Joest would recuse himself from the case and let another staff person handle it.

"As the assistant commissioner of the Office of Legal Counsel, David does not personally handle legal cases as a rule. He supervises lawyers who handle cases," Sneed said.

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