State

Trump agency halted coal health study. Private financing may help finish it.

This 2007 file photo shows the impact of surface mining near the town of Chavies in Perry County.
This 2007 file photo shows the impact of surface mining near the town of Chavies in Perry County.

A national science panel might use donations to finish a study that the Trump Administration halted on whether people face greater health risks from living near surface coal mines in Central Appalachia, including Eastern Kentucky.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine said in a news release Thursday that private donors have expressed interest in financing the completion of the study.

“Given how important this study is to the citizens and communities surrounding these surface mining sites in Appalachia, the National Academies believe the study should be completed and are exploring options to do so,” the release said.

Several prior studies have shown an association between mountaintop mining and higher rates of cancer, heart disease and other health problems in Central Appalachia.

However, the coal industry has hotly 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.”

One goal of the National Academies study group was to evaluate the quality of the research that has been done and identify whether there is a need for more research.

The U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement commissioned the $1 million review in 2016, during the late days of the Obama Administration.

OSM said 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” in Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and the coal regions of Virginia and Tennessee.

Several experts associated with the University of Kentucky were appointed to the study panel, and members began gathering information in the spring after Trump was inaugurated.

OSM told the National Academies in August to suspend the study.

A spokeswoman for the Department of the Interior, which includes OSM, said at the time that the hold was ordered because the administration was reviewing every grant 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 . . . .”

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.

Media contacts for the Interior Department did not immediately respond Thursday to questions.

Opponents of mountaintop mining saw the stop-work order as a prelude to killing a study that could help answer the controversial question of whether such mining causes health problems.

“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,” Bill Price, with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said when OSM suspended the study.

Trump and the coal industry argue that Obama-era efforts to toughen rules aimed at protecting air and water quality went too far and stifled the industry, resulting in massive job losses in Kentucky and elsewhere.

However, other studies have concluded that competition from cheap natural gas for power-plant customers has been a more significant factor in the sharp downturn in coal.

It’s good news that the National Academies panel might finish the surface-mining study with private funding, Erin Savage, program manager for Appalachian Voices, said Thursday.

The environmental group opposes mountaintop mining.

Savage said coalfield citizens and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection requested the study.

“There are agencies and citizens who really want to see this go forward,” Savage said.

The National Academies confirmed the potential to use donations to finish the coal study in a news release announcing an order from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement — which is under the Interior Department — to halt another study on an inspection program for offshore oil and gas operations to boost safety.

The National Academies said it was disappointed that the important study had been stopped.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are described as private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent analysis to the nation on complicated problems and provide information on public-policy decisions related to science, technology and medicine.

They operate under an 1863 charter to the National Academy of Sciences signed by President Abraham Lincoln.

This drone footage shows a reclaimed strip mine in Pike County, Ky., where investors are studying the potential for a large solar panel array. Video provided by Berkeley Energy Group.

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