Federal panel to begin study on potential health impacts of living near surface mining

A strip mine atop mountains in Eastern Kentucky.
A strip mine atop mountains in Eastern Kentucky.

A national science panel is about to dig into an issue fraught with controversy in Eastern Kentucky: Does living near surface coal mines increase the risk of health problems?

The U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement commissioned the study last August, but there has been concern among supporters about whether it would go forward under the Trump Administration.

However, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine has scheduled a public meeting for March 7 to discuss its plan to research the potential link between health risks and living near surface mining and associated reclamation operations.

The study involves Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and the coal regions of Virginia and Tennessee.

A number of studies have shown that mountaintop mining is associated with higher rates of cancer, heart disease and other health problems in Central Appalachia.

Michael S. Hendryx, a professor who did several of the studies while formerly at West Virginia University, told the Herald-Leader last year that the studies were adjusted to account for factors such as higher rates of smoking and obesity in the region.

However, the coal industry has fiercely disputed the studies, and a 2012 industry-funded study by a Yale University researcher and others concluded that “coal mining is not per se the cause of increased mortality in rural Appalachia.”

The study by the National Academies could identify gaps in existing research and help settle some of the uncertainties about the issue.

OSM said the research agency would choose experts to examine a “growing amount of academic research that relates to possible correlations between increased health risks as a result of living near surface coal mine operations.”

The study will involve synthesizing existing research, not conducting new field studies.

OSM said it would pay National Academies $1 million for the two-year study.

“We are of course concerned that Trump could impact the review,” said Erin Savage, a program manager for Appalachian Voices, which opposes mountaintop mining.

The easiest way to do that would be to withdraw funding, Savage said.

Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association, said Thursday that he hadn’t heard anything about the administration canceling the study.

Popovich said he doubts the administration has addressed the issue yet because it is so early in Trump’s term and slots for many senior officials are still open.

The new Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, whose cabinet includes OSM, was approved only Wednesday.

Several people with ties to Kentucky have been named to the National Academies panel that will do the study.

They are Carmen Agouridis, an extension associate professor of ecosystem restoration at the University of Kentucky; Nancy E. Johnson, an assistant professor in the Department of Preventative Medicine at the UK College of Public Health; Braden Lusk, a former professor of mining engineering at UK who is now at the Missouri University of Science and Technology; and John T. Popp, a geologist who formerly worked for Alliance Coal LLC / Mapco Coal in Lexington, according to the National Academies.