ONE WOULD imagine that the Trump administration, which swept into power claiming to support the people who live in coal country, would prioritize federal spending on those very people’s health. Instead, the Interior Department has halted a study on how so-called mountaintop-removal coal mining affects people who live around these landscape-stripping operations.
Ostensibly, the halt is part of a broad budgetary review. If so, Interior should restart the study quickly. It is a worthwhile use of government research money, and it should proceed no matter which constituency the president had promised to support.
Mountaintop-removal mining involves literally blowing the tops off mountains in order to extract coal deposits too thin for conventional subsurface mining. The explosions kick up a lot of dust. Rubble is filled into nearby valleys and streams. Heavy metals leach into waterways. Scientists have warned that they are seeing heightened rates of lung cancer, kidney disease, birth defects and other devastating illnesses around mountaintop removal sites. There is also mounting data showing that mountaintopremoval mining seriously harms local ecosystems.
The correlations that researchers have drawn require more careful study to determine how closely they relate to mountaintop removal, as opposed to poverty or other factors, and to recommend ways of addressing the issue. West Virginia officials have asked the federal government for more solid information. That is why the Interior Department tapped the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to conduct a two-year, $1 million study of these and other questions. A team of 12 experts was to characterize the mountaintop-removal process, assess potential effects, examine the data, and recommend ways to monitor people’s health and to conduct research for new safeguards.
But the department told the National Academies that it must cease its work, due to “an agency-wide review of its grants and cooperative agreements in excess of $100,000, largely as a result of our changing budget situation.” In response, the National Academies insisted that Interior was putting the brakes on “an important study” and promised to “stand ready to resume it as soon as the Department of the Interior review is completed.”
It is not big government for states to seek federal expertise on matters relating to their citizens’ welfare. And this particular study is no waste of time. There may not be as many operating mountaintop-removal sites as before. But if the practice is going to be used at all, there must be science-based standards. Moreover, state health officials should know about any legacy of illness and pain that may await communities around mountaintop-removal sites. The National Academies was charged with examining both active and reclaimed mining sites, of which there are hundreds.
President Trump’s Interior Department can bury the science — whether in hope of keeping these disgusting operations in business a little longer, or in service of shortsighted budget cutting — but that will not solve any of the problems that would remain.