Herald-Leader Editorial

Feds should start paying attention to mountaintop mining's effects on public health

July 15, 2014 

What good is the freedom to fish without fish?

That's not a Me and Bobbie McGee riff or one of those "if a tree falls in the forest" riddles.

It's a practical question arising from a recently published U.S. Geological Survey study that confirmed what everyone knew: Mountaintop mining decimates aquatic populations.

The study of the Guyandotte River watershed in West Virginia documented that in streams affected by surface mining the number of fish species had declined by half, the fish population was down by a third and the surviving species looked scrawny.

More than 1,200 miles of headwater streams in Central Appalachia have been buried by mountaintop mining, and additional permits have been issued, according to the U.S.G.S.

These headwaters, flowing off what used to be forested mountains, give rise to rivers and lakes that provide not just recreation and jobs but drinking water for much of the Eastern United States.

So, concerns raised by degraded water quality go beyond aquatic life to human life.

It's baffling — unconscionable, really — that no agency of the federal government has undertaken a comprehensive study of the effects of mountaintop mining on human health.

Studies by researchers at universities — including West Virginia, Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky — have found evidence of elevated rates of cancer and birth defects, among other adverse outcomes, in people who live near mountaintop mining.

Findings that would raise alarms and spur action if reported in an affluent urban population are somehow easily ignored when the victims are the often poor people who live in the mountains of Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia.

Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, has introduced legislation that would commission such a study while imposing a moratorium on mountaintop mining.

Needless to say, his bill has gotten no support from any other Kentuckians in Congress.

On the contrary, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, is trying to weaken protections for water.

McConnell — who coined the phrase "Freedom to Fish" as part of his successful campaign to reverse limits on fishing and boating near Corps of Engineers dams for safety reasons — more recently co-sponsored an amendment that would have slashed federal protections for headwater streams, wetlands and other water sources. Last week, that amendment helped kill North Carolina Democrat Sen. Kay Hagen's bill protecting the right to hunt and fish on federal lands.

Also last week, in a defeat for the coal industry, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington upheld the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's authority to scrutinize and hold up mining permits to protect water.

Unfortunately, another appeals court, the 6th Circuit, this year upheld permitting a surface mine above the Kentucky towns of Vicco and Sassafras without considering the health effects on residents.

Federal agencies should start paying more attention to the coal industry's public health impacts.

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