Editorials

Why did Trump administration ax study of mountaintop mining's health effects? No good reason, says inspector general

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

Remember when the Trump administration last year scrapped a long-awaited study into the health effects of living near surface coal mining?

An inspector general's investigation concluded that the Interior Department could not explain its decision and had "wasted" $455,110 that already had been spent on the study "because no final work product was produced."

"Departmental officials were unable to provide specific criteria used for their determination," the IG's office reported in response to an inquiry by Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee.

Contrary to an official explanation at the time, that the savings were needed to make up for expected cuts to the Interior Department's budget, the remaining $548,443 will be returned to the Treasury in 2021, the IG reported.

If it wasn't already clear, the IG's report should eliminate any doubt about the real motive for ending the review by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine: The coal industry didn't want the findings to be known.

Pacific Standard magazine recently reported that an Interior Department official, Katharine MacGregor, prodded an official in the Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation to end the study after meeting at least six times with representatives of the mining industry, including the National Mining Association and Arch Coal. The magazine obtained MacGregor's calendar and emails through the Freedom of Information Act.

Until the study was scrapped, an expert panel put together by the National Academies was evaluating sometimes conflicting research into the health effects of living near surface mining. Appalachian residents, including West Virginia's public health commissioner, had asked for such a study.

People who live near large strip mines, where mountains are blown up and headwater streams buried under the debris, are exposed to dust and particulate matter in the air, diesel exhaust and water pollution. Some studies have concluded that, even when other factors such as poverty and high smoking rates are accounted for, living near surface mining increases the risks of cancer, birth defects and shortened life expectancy.

As a new epidemic of black lung disease among miners, including those who work above ground, hits the mountains, it's only logical to ask about the health effects on residents.

But powerful interests might be held responsible. And they don't want to know.

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