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Feds halt study of potential link between surface mining and health problems

If surface mines hurt health, 'we need to do something about that'

Erin Savage of Appalachian Voices on her support for a study of potential links between surface mining and health problems in Appalachia in Hazard, Ky., on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017.
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Erin Savage of Appalachian Voices on her support for a study of potential links between surface mining and health problems in Appalachia in Hazard, Ky., on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017.

A federal agency has halted a study aimed at helping answer the controversial question of whether people face greater health risks as a result of living near surface coal mining in Central Appalachia, including Eastern Kentucky.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine announced Monday that the U.S. Office of Surface Mining told the panel to stop work on the study. OSM had committed $1 million to fund the study by the National Academies.

​OSM said the reason for stopping work on the study was because it has begun a review of all its grants and cooperative agreements worth more than $100,000, largely because of budget reasons, according to the National Academies.

The announcement raised concern among people who oppose mountaintop mining that the move is a prelude to scrapping the study altogether.

“This was something that we had considered and feared given the change in administrations,” said Erin Savage, a program manager for Appalachian Voices.

That concern is rooted in President Donald Trump’s moves to roll back environmental regulations that he and the coal industry argue have caused massive job losses at mines in Eastern Kentucky and elsewhere.

“It’s infuriating that Trump would halt this study on the health effects of mountaintop removal coal mining, research that people in Appalachia have been demanding for years,” said Bill Price with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “Trump has once again shown the people of Appalachia that we mean nothing to him.”

The U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement commissioned the study last August, before Trump was elected.

Administration officials have not said anything publicly about scrapping the study.

Heather Swift, spokeswoman for OSM’s parent agency, the Interior Department, said the agency began a review of all grants over $100,000 “to ensure the department is using tax dollars in a way that advances the department’s mission and fulfills the roles mandated by Congress.”

Savage said she hopes OSM’s decision does not mean the end of the study.

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

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

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.”

OSM said when it announced the National Academies review that a panel of experts would go through “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 review could have a significant impact on the debate about the potential link between mining and health, identifying gaps in the research and perhaps helping settle some of the questions.

The panel had planned meetings in Hazard and Lexington before OSM’s notice to stop work, so those will go ahead, according to a news release.

The meeting Monday in Hazard begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Perry County Library, 289 Black Gold Blvd. The meeting Tuesday in Lexington will be from 12:45 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Marriott Griffin Gate at 1800 Newtown Pike.

“The National Academies believes this is an important study and we stand ready to resume it as soon as the Department of the Interior review is completed,” the science agency said in a release.

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