Democracy Dies in Darkness

Energy and Environment

Trump administration halted a study of mountaintop coal mining's health effects

By Darryl Fears

August 21, 2017 at 3:39 PM

A slurry pond, left, at a mountaintop removal mining site in southern West Virginia, May 26, 2013. (Debbie Hill)

The Trump administration's Interior Department ordered the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to halt a study of health risks for residents near surface coal mining sites in the Appalachian Mountains.

A statement by the academy said Interior's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement dispatched a letter Friday telling it to cease all work by an 11-member committee undertaking the study pending a departmental review of projects costing more than $100,000. The review was prompted "largely as a result of the Department's changing budget situation," the statement said.

President Trump proposed to cut $1.6 billion at Interior in 2018, including 4,000 staff positions. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke supported the cuts in a Senate hearing, saying, "This is what a balanced budget looks like."

The story was first reported by Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston (W. Va.) Gazette-Mail. Scientists conducting the study said they will carry on with open meetings in Hazard and Lexington, Ky., Monday through Wednesday in the hopes that the review will end soon and that its work be allowed to continue. But the academy said it has no idea about the review's expected start date and completion.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine "are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine."

In a statement about the decision, the National Mining Association referenced two analyses. The first, by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences that examined several studies, said they didn't show evidence justifying a health hazard and that the studies "often failed to account for extraneous health and lifestyle effects." The second, by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, said mountaintop mining now accounts for less than one percent of coal production and a study of health impacts "may be unnecessary."

Coal mining in Central Appalachia, where the committee's work is focused, includes mountaintop removal in which peaks have been blasted off and valley streams have been buried in rubble. Scientists have said the practice is so destructive that the government should stop issuing permits for it.

After a study in 2010, Margaret Palmer, then a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences and the study's lead author, said, "The science is so overwhelming that the only conclusion that one can reach is that mountaintop mining needs to be stopped."

But Trump has declared himself a friend of coal miners and coal mining companies. In March, he issued an executive order that lifted a ban on leases for coal excavation on federal land, making good on a vow to revive the struggling industry and create thousands of jobs.

"I made them this promise," Trump said, "we will put our miners back to work."

Industry analysts saw little chance of that. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis said power plants' relatively new reliance on natural gas over coal is the reason the industry is bleeding jobs. As of March, when the executive order was signed, six plants had closed since the president's election and at least 40 were slated to close during his term.

"It's infuriating that Trump would halt this study… that people in Appalachia have been demanding for years," said Bill Price, a representative for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. "Everyone knows there are major health risks living near mountaintop removal coal mining sites, but communities living with daily health threats were counting on finally getting the full story from the professionals at the National Academies of Science."

Read More

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Darryl Fears has worked at The Washington Post for more than a decade, mostly as a reporter on the National staff. He currently covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and issues affecting wildlife.

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