The Pizarchik File: A Day in the Life of a "Fellow" - Spring 2011 Ivy Leaf Magazine

Ivy Leaf - Spring 2011

The Pizarchik File

A Day in the Life of a "Fellow"

Former Penn State Altoona student Joseph Pizarchik, director of the U.S. Department of Interior, Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM), was named a Penn State Alumni Fellow for 2010. A native of Indiana County, Pennsylvania, Pizarchik attended Penn State, first at the Altoona campus and then graduated from the University Park campus in 1979. After working in the private sector, he began his career in government service in the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation's chief counsel office.

In 1991, he joined the Bureau of Regulatory Counsel in the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. In 2002, Gov. Mark Schweiker named Pizarchik director of the Bureau of Mining and Reclamation, where he directed the planning, development, coordination, and evaluation of statewide programs designed to regulate blasting as well as coal and non-coal mining and reclamation activities in the commonwealth.

Pizarchik was one of the authors of Pennsylvania's Environmental Good Samaritan Act and provided counsel during the development and implementation of the Good Samaritan program. He also is credited with helping to clear the way for the sale of private mining property to the Families of Flight 93 to enable the construction of the memorial.

Pizarchik was nominated by President Obama for OSM director in July 2009 and was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in November.

In addition to his Penn State degree, Pizarchik earned a law degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He and his wife, Therese Boyd '79, met when they were freshmen at Penn State Altoona. They live in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Pizarchik is the ninth Penn State Altoona nominee to receive the Alumni Fellow Award, which recognizes outstanding professional achievement and contributions to society.

As part of his responsibilities as an Alumni Fellow, Pizarchik returned to Penn State Altoona during the fall 2010 and spring 2011 semesters to share his experiences in government service with students, faculty, and administrators.

12:24 p.m. A knock at the door. "Sir, your ride is here." He clips his Blackberry to his waist and picks up a folder containing his notebook. He says "Thank you" as he strides out the door and takes the stairs two steps at a time up two floors to the roof where a helicopter awaits. The helicopter takes off for a short ride. He is out of the 'copter as soon as it lands and heads into the building. Two younger people in dark suits greet him: "He's ready for you, sir." "What is it?" he asks, and one responds, "The same issue, sir. The Middle East." He walks a little faster, right into the Oval Office.

Sometimes when people hear that Joe Pizarchik '79 was nominated by President Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2009 for a position in the federal government, they picture the above — completely fictional — scenario. But Pizarchik is no Jack Bauer. When people ask him what he does, Pizarchik usually smiles and says, "I'm a government bureaucrat." But that doesn't really tell the story either.

Pizarchik is director of the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation, and Enforcement. Not exactly a household name, especially in states without coal. OSM is one of the few regulatory agencies within the much larger and better-known Department of the Interior. Since 1977, when Congress enacted the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, OSM has been working to protect both citizens and the environment from the adverse effects of coal mining. It's not very glamorous, but it's an essential job within our government, especially since 50 percent of the country's electricity comes from coal. For the past thirty-three years, this unassuming agency has distributed over $7 billion to states and Native American tribes. That money was used to reclaim 285,000 acres of mine hazards and environmental problems that were abandoned before OSM was created.

So how does Pizarchik spend a day? If he's in Washington, D.C., he's in the office by 7:30 a.m., although his Blackberry has already been buzzing with e-mail traffic. He reads the "early bird edition" of news clips about the Department of the Interior. Even at this early hour, he is soon interrupted by a knock on the door; his budget director has a question. Then his communications director wants to talk about a press release, and his deputy wants to review the meeting schedule, and so on. During the course of any day, in addition to working on program improvements, there may be letters to be written or approved, personnel matters, employee recognitions, phone calls, and even building maintenance issues.

One of the highlights of Pizarchik's job is his office. OSM is housed in the Department of the Interior South, which was built in 1932 for the Public Health Service. The director's office on the second floor, originally built for the surgeon general and known as the Octagon Room, is the largest single government office in D.C. During World War II, the Combined Chiefs of Staff met there to plan the war. A plaque on the office wall commemorates their service. (A full history of the office can be found at

At least once a day, Pizarchik has to cross the street to the main Department of the Interior building (no helicopter, no car, just walking). He could be meeting with Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, other political appointees, his legal counsel, or any number of assistants or deputies regarding OSM matters or DOI priorities.

Less often he heads for Capitol Hill and meets with members of Congress or their staffers. Currently, there is interest in the stream-protection rule that OSM is developing. Pizarchik knows that not everyone understands what OSM is trying to do, so a major part of his job is communication. He says, "We want to better strike the balance between protecting society and the environment while helping ensure there is coal to meet America's energy needs," and acknowledges that's not a simple goal by any means.

Working in Washington is a big change for this native Pennsylvanian. He first set foot in D.C. as a Penn State Altoona student on one of Professor Lou Leopold's Poli Sci club field trips and always had federal service in the back of his mind. He worked in Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection in Harrisburg for years. Now, Pizarchik says, "Going to or coming from a meeting on Capitol Hill, I find it both exhilarating and humbling to be driving down Constitution Avenue and passing in front of the White House."

Whether in his office or on the road, Pizarchik often meets with the stakeholder: people who have an interest in coal mining, such as mining companies, private citizens, environmental activists, Native Americans, or state regulators. Even though there may be vast disagreements, Pizarchik welcomes those meetings. "They express some very divergent views on how mining should be regulated but they all agree on the importance of clean water, good jobs, and a safe environment. Hearing firsthand from the people whose lives are touched every day by the decisions I make is invaluable."

Lunch is at his desk (if he has time); dinner is always late. There are no helicopter rides, no meetings in the Oval Office. Being OSM director is not a 9-to-5 (or even 6) job; it's 24/7. When things do not go smoothly, as can happen, Pizarchik says the plaque on his office wall "puts it all in perspective." He is proud to be in government service and speaks to college classes to encourage young people to do the same. He often says, "Public service is the greatest calling. Whether you are a biologist, lawyer, or computer scientist, if you choose a career in government service, you can make a real difference in America."