Kentuckians to Trump: Restart study of how surface mining hurts health

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.

Several coalfield residents who gathered here Monday night told federal researchers they hope the Trump administration will soon restart a study of the potential link between surface mining and health problems.

“Science isn’t going to hurt us. What we don’t know very well could,” said Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg.

The U.S. Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement commissioned the $1 million study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, but the National Academies announced Monday that OSM had ordered a halt to the work.

The Interior Department, the parent agency of OSM, has begun a review of all its grants and cooperative agreements worth more than $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,” said spokeswoman Heather Swift. President Donald Trump has proposed cutting more than $1.5 billion from the Interior Department, though Congress has not finalized the budget.

Before OSM’s decision to halt the study, the National Academies panel had scheduled a meeting in Hazard Monday to take comments from Eastern Kentucky residents. The committee went ahead with the meeting.

Residents told the committee of their concerns that mountaintop mining hurts air and water quality, impairs human health and destroys mountains and streams.

“You try not to think about the long-term consequences” of life near large mines, said Jeff Chapman-Crane, an artist who lives in Letcher County.

Steve Sanders, director of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, said it was “distressing” that the National Academies study might not go forward.

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 health problems in Central Appalachia.

Michael Hendryx, who has helped lead more than two dozen studies of environmental and public health issues in the Appalachian coalfields, said the studies show people who live near mountaintop-mining sites in the region face a higher risk of cancer, heart disease and other health problems.

Hendryx argues that while researchers don’t yet know exactly how mountaintop mining hurts the health of nearby residents, there is ample evidence it does.

“We know enough to stop blowing up mountains over people’s heads,” he told the Herald-Leader Monday in an interview.

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

​Larry C. Taylor, with the state Department for Environmental Protection, said a state study concluded there was no correlation between the level of two metals in public water systems and wells, and cancer incidence and deaths in Eastern Kentucky.

One job of the National Academies study group is to assess the quality of the research that has been done on the potential links between mountaintop mining and health problems, and identify whether there is a need for more research that could help “safeguard the health of residents” near mining operations, according to its charge.

At the meeting in Hazard, representatives of the coal industry said modern mining practices and rules have eliminated poor reclamation and other problems from the past.

Coal companies do a good job reclaiming land and monitoring water quality, they said.

“We try to make things better,” said Don Gibson, director of permitting for Black Hawk Mining.

Tyler White, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said it was disappointing to see tax dollars appropriated for a study when the money could have helped combat health problems or drug abuse in the coalfields. The industry supports OSM’s decision to stop the work, he said.

The panel doing the study held a meeting Tuesday in Lexington, the final one before the committee stands down.

Officials told the panel that state regulators monitor the impact of mining on watersheds and enforce rules to protect water quality.

Some opponents of mountaintop mining saw OSM’s move to halt the study as a prelude to killing it, ending the possibility of a conclusion unfavorable to the coal industry.

But Paul Locke, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University who chairs the study committee, said members — all of them volunteers and experts in various fields — don’t see any “nefarious” motive in OSM’s decision, and hope to finish the job.

“We think it’s a really valuable study,” Locke said.