Women’s History Month is an opportunity for us to amplify the work of women leaders at the Department and create space to share their experiences and expertise. From scientists and engineers to architects to park rangers, women lead across the Interior Department.
The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) ensures that coal mines operate in a way that keeps communities safe and land previously used by mining companies is reclaimed for other use. Glenda Owens serves as Deputy Director of OSMRE. We asked her to share her path to the Department of the Interior, the work of OSMRE, and how addressing abandoned mine land helps Interior to tackle the climate crisis.
1. What was your path to the Department and to OSMRE? My interest in the Department was sparked, among other things, by my interest in environmental law and the breadth of Interior’s responsibilities. I started my career at Interior as an attorney in the Solicitor's Office in the honors program rotating through the legal divisions within that office for a year, where I was exposed to the Department’s varied responsibilities.
I subsequently took a position in the Division of Minerals Resources, where I provided legal advice and defended actions taken by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE). That led to my assuming the role of Deputy Director for OSMRE 20 years ago. So, my role changed from providing legal counsel to the bureau to assuming programmatic leadership responsibilities for implementing and overseeing the surface coal mining and reclamation program for the Agency.
2. OSMRE is charged with addressing environmental hazards, including abandoned mine lands (AML). Can you share how OSMRE does this work and why? OSMRE’s mission is to carry out the requirements of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA) in cooperation with States and Tribes. In collaboration with State and Tribal AML Programs, OSMRE provides constructive program reviews, oversight monitoring, and technical assistance that ensures serious hazards such as mine fires, open mine portals, dangerous highwalls, and acid mine drainage are abated. Examples of OSMRE’s reclamation programs include the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation (AML) Program and the Abandoned Mine Land Economic Revitalization (AMLER) Program. The essential work performed through these programs protects the public and the environment from hazards that were left by extractive companies and encourages the revitalization of communities that have suffered from coal mining job losses and adverse environmental impacts from coal mining.
Every year, OSMRE recognizes and awards exemplary reclamation projects, highlighting the great work performed by State and Tribal AML Programs. A perfect example is a 2020 AML Reclamation Award-winning project in Indiana where two dangerous highwalls located near a public road posed a danger to anyone driving, hiking, hunting, or fishing near the Sugar Ridge Fish and Wildlife Area. Indiana's AML program worked with the Indiana Division of Natural Resources to address the hazards. It was a collaborative effort that eliminated 1,615 linear feet of dangerous highwalls while mitigating future acid mine drainage (AMD) problems, improving wetland areas, and providing better wildlife habitat – all of which improved recreational opportunities and the potential for future development at the site.
3. We talk a lot about environmental justice at Interior. What role do you think legacy pollution has in that conversation? Environmental justice seeks to ensure the fair and equitable distribution of environmental benefits and burdens associated with economic and energy production. Historically, coal communities have been disproportionately impacted by mining activities. It is essential to ensure that communities negatively impacted by legacy pollution have the opportunity to inform decisions on, and receive the benefits presented by, the abatement of environmental hazards. By giving impacted communities a voice in decision-making that advances a healthy and safe environment and supports economic revitalization, the objectives of environmental justice are more likely to be realized in those communities.
4. How does abandoned mine land clean up help us tackle the climate crisis?
Whether it’s the acid mine drainage impacting biological diversity of rivers or the underground mine fires releasing hazardous gases into the environment, cleaning up abandoned mine lands is a critical step towards tackling the climate crisis. One example is OSMRE’s Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, under which more than 3.5 million trees have been planted on abandoned mine lands. These trees, planted on over 6,000 acres across Appalachia, not only stabilize the ground and hillsides in their capture of rainfall, but also capture carbon dioxide and emissions polluting our air. The recently enacted Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides more than $11 billion to ensure the reclamation of abandoned mine land and to address polluted and degraded water resources. These reclamation and remediation efforts will play an essential role in furthering and supporting efforts to improve our environment and tackle the climate crisis.
5. Who are the women to watch in the abandoned mine land space? Women in OSMRE who are making major contributions to addressing the environmental and economic impacts associated with abandoned mine lands clean up include OSMRE’s Program Support Directorate’s Yolande Norman-Moore, Chief, Division of Reclamation Support; Stephanie Hamlett, Chief, Division of Regulatory Support; and Octavia Conerly, Special Assistant to the Assistant Director; OSMRE’s Finance and Acquisition Directorate’s Georgene Thompson, Acting Assistant Director; Julie Cook, Chief, Division of Compliance Management; and Trish Scanlon, Acting Chief, Division of Financial Management; and Elizabeth Schaffer, Field Operations Branch Manager, Interior Regions 5, 7-11. These women are instrumental influencers in OSMRE’s AML Program-related decision- making who have had positive and tangible impacts in advancing and achieving the goals and objectives of not only the surface mining laws, but other associated environmental and economic goals as well.
6. What is your advice to other women who are interested in becoming involved in this field? The field of environmental protection, restoration and regulation offers numerous learning, career and leadership opportunities for women. We are a diverse, competent, innovative, and highly trained cadre of women and men alike, who serve with purpose and integrity, and demonstrate technical, legal, administrative, and professional excellence at every level. Our efforts are making a difference and impacting lives throughout the Nation as we work to ensure safer, healthier communities, cleaner water, more diverse and sustainable biological communities and habitats, and greater economic stability. The work we do in support of reclaiming legacy abandoned mine lands and restoring communities is a rewarding career choice that will reap and ensure benefits for generations to come. So, to women looking for opportunities to hone your skills, advance your careers, expand your influence, and make a difference, this field offers an excellent opportunity to do so.
Glenda H. Owens is the Deputy Director of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE). As Deputy Director, Ms. Owens works with the Director to provide executive leadership and direction for the implementation of the requirements of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA).
Ms. Owens oversees the Bureau's operational activities, ensuring that it meets the requirements established for Federal agencies by the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management, among other things. Ms. Owens also serves as OSMRE's Chief Financial Officer and is responsible for ensuring the Bureau's compliance with the Chief Financial Officers' Act and other financial and business management requirements. Ms. Owens is a member of Interior's Deputies Operating Group, an executive-level body, which focuses on management efficiency and effectiveness of the Department.
Ms. Owens has a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Michigan and a Juris Doctorate from the Howard University School of Law.