Health and strip mining? Study on

Surface mining in Perry County in 2007.
Surface mining in Perry County in 2007. cbertram@herald-leader.com

There’s no good explanation, no budgetary or scientific reason for ending a federal study into the possible health effects of living near surface coal mining in Appalachia.

This study is well underway. The only reason the Trump administration would pull the plug now is to please the coal industry. And that reason is not good enough when so many people are waiting for answers.

The scientists who are delving into what’s known and not known come from across the country and from an impressive range of disciplines and backgrounds. They are working as volunteers under the auspices of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

The committee already has held information-gathering meetings in Washington, D.C., West Virginia and Kentucky — in Hazard for mine-site visits and a town hall Monday and in Lexington Tuesday when the committee heard from, among others, Kentucky environmental regulators and geologists.

The Kentucky meetings went ahead despite a decision by the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining to suspend the study, ostensibly as part of reviewing all grants of more than $100,000 in response to $1.6 billion in proposed cuts to Interior. The office commissioned the two-year study a year ago and agreed to provide $1 million to cover the costs.

In an Aug. 18 letter, the agency told the National Academies to stop work on the study but that the Kentucky meetings could go ahead.

The study should go ahead, too. Coalfield residents and officials have been counting on it to help clear up conflicts in the available research.

One body of peer-reviewed studies — mainly by Michael Hendryx, a professor at Indiana University and formerly at West Virginia University — determined that, even when other factors such as poverty and high smoking rates are accounted for, living near surface coal mining increases the risks of cancer, birth defects and shortened lifespan.

Other studies, however, including one funded by the coal industry, have suggested that Hendryx’s conclusions did not fully account for “extraneous health and lifestyle effects.”

West Virginia’s Public Health Commissioner Dr. Rahul Gupta and former environmental secretary Randy Huffman had asked Interior to help clarify.

In Kentucky, a committee of Shaping Our Appalachian Region, a bipartisan economic-development effort, identified possible links between surface coal mining and health problems as one of its top concerns in 2014 and recommended further study.

Speakers at Monday’s meeting in Hazard opposed ending the study. As Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, said: “Science isn’t going to hurt us. What we don’t know very well could.”

One industry argument against the study is that surface mining in Appalachia provides only a tiny fraction of the nation’s coal supply. That ignores the huge impact it has — during and after mining — on the people who live nearby. As Appalachia’s thin seams are mined, more rock has to be blasted away, which puts a new set of potentially harmful substances into the air and water.

It would be wasteful — the opposite of economical — to have spent this much time, money and effort without getting the final product, a report that many people are awaiting.