Setbacks for coal industry; rulings for EPA, new health studies

If the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is guilty of anything in Eastern Kentucky, it's doing too little too late to avert a potential public health catastrophe.

Yet, Sen. Mitch McConnell plans to be in Pikeville and Hazard Monday to unveil legislation aimed at "rolling back the EPA's burdensome regulations."

Someone should ask him how much disease and death his constituents must bear to keep the coal industry's bulldozers rolling.

(Also, how can Eastern Kentucky coal that costs $3.78 per million BTUs compete with natural gas or Wyoming coal that's selling for $2 per million BTUs?)

Three federal judges — and an undetermined number of sick Kentuckians — should put all of Kentucky's elected officials on notice that the cumulative impacts of mountaintop mining must no longer be ignored.

Sadly, these impacts are so widespread they can't be measured just in total maximum daily pollution loads or peak runoff from scalped hills. They must also be counted in cancer, heart and lung disease, birth defects and deaths of people who live near surface mining.

In a week when two federal appeals courts dealt the coal industry defeats, a panel of scientists also weighed in supporting studies linking surface mining to an array of health problems.

Reps. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, and Harlan County native Louise Slaughter, a Democrat who represents Rochester, N.Y., used the occasion to renew their call for the first comprehensive federal study of mountaintop mining's health effects.

"Breaks my heart what's happening in Kentucky," said Slaughter, a microbiologist with a master's degree in public health, during a briefing Tuesday on a scientific review commissioned by the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, an environmental organization. The review was of studies, mainly by the University of West Virginia. One of the reviewers, epidemiologist Steven B. Wing, an associate professor in the University of North Carolina's School of Public Health, said: "The evidence shows that mountaintop removal threatens public health and the environment. It's time to act to protect rural communities."

To that end, Yarmuth and Slaughter are sponsoring the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency (ACHE) Act, which would impose a one-time fee on mountaintop mine operators to fund research by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and other agencies. New mountaintop mining permits would be halted until the findings are known.

It's easy to see how surface mining on the scale it's been allowed in Appalachia could harm the public. Heavy metals, along with dust, silica and other pollutants, are released when mountaintops are blasted and bulldozed to uncover the coal. A University of Kentucky study of toenail clippings found higher levels of arsenic in people who live near mountaintop mining than in people who live in Louisville.

On the judicial front, the coal industry's legal defeats were handed down by two courts made up five-to-one of judges appointed by Republican presidents. The rulings reaffirm the EPA's authority to veto mining permits and rejected as "arbitrary and capricious" the Corps of Engineers' reauthorization of the nationwide permit that allowed the coal industry to fill valleys and bury streams under tons of rock and dirt.

In reversing a decision by U.S. District Judge David Bunning, the Sixth District U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati faulted the Corps' failure to consider the cumulative environmental impacts of past mining, a failure of which Kentucky regulators are also guilty.