Sunday, August 27, 2017

Study on strip mining and health suspended, but all sides were heard at meetings already scheduled in Hazard and Lexington

Historical map shows mountaintop-removal sites in red, other
strip mines in yellow. (For a larger version, click on the image.)
By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

A study of possible health risks of living near big strip mines in Central Appalachia held what may have been its final public meetings in Kentucky last week, following suspension of the study by the Trump administration.

On Aug. 18, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement told the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to stop all work on the study, citing a budget review of the Interior Department, OSMRE's parent agency.

"The National Academies believes this is an important study and we stand ready to resume it as soon as the Department of the Interior review is completed," the academies said in a statement, but the spokeswoman for the agency said they didn't know when that might be.

The academies created an 11-member committee to review the available research on the health effects of mountaintop removal and other forms of surface coal mining, and identify gaps in the research for study.

A number of studies have shown that surface mining is associated with higher rates of cancer, heart disease, birth defects and other health conditions in Central Appalachia, but have not established a connection, and other studies have been inconclusive or not even found correlation.

Hazard and Lexington meetings

The committee's first Kentucky meeting, Aug. 21 in Hazard, included coal-mine visits and a public meeting. The second was Aug. 22 in Lexington, where the panel heard from Kentucky environmental officials, geologists and others.

Several who spoke at Hazard said they hoped the Trump administration would restart the study and also expressed concerns that "mountaintop mining hurts air and water quality, impairs human health and destroys mountains and streams," Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports.

"Science isn’t going to hurt us. What we don’t know very well could," said Dee Davis of Whitesburg, president of the Center for Rural Strategies.

Coal-industry representatives said "Coal companies do a good job of reclaiming land and monitoring water quality," Estep reports. Tyler White, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said his organization supports the decision to halt the study and the tax dollars appropriated for it would have been better spent combating health problems or drug abuse in the coalfield.

Glynis Bourd of Ohio Valley Resource reports that the effects of surface mining on health have been a concern of people in Central Appalachia for a long time. Her story includes a detailed video timeline demonstrating them.

At the Lexington meeting, Larry C. Taylor, an environmental scientist for the state Department for Environmental Protection, told the panel that a state study found there was no correlation between two metals, arsenic and chromium, in drinking water and cancer incidence and deaths in Eastern Kentucky. The metals are released by mountaintop removal and other large-scale surface mining.

Richard Wahrer of the state Department of Natural Resources said state regulators perform extensive evaluations on the impact of mining on watersheds. "Remember, water can't leave the mining site unless it is in compliance with established standards," he said. "We have not had material damage occurring outside the cumulative impact area."

Viney Aneja, a professor at North Carolina State University, reported on his study that measured the environmental exposure of residents in southwest Virginia to coal dust generated by trucks hauling coal from a nearby surface coal mine.

The study found that coarse dust particles, called PM10, often exceeded the national standards in locations both near and about one mile away from the surface mine, and on some days were three times higher than the national standards. PM10 particulates, which can be as small as 2.5 micrometers across, can easily be inhaled and pose a risk of lung damage.

Charles Snavely, secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet for Energy and the Environment and a former coal executive, said he had never heard anyone in his Eastern Kentucky community attribute a health problem to coal mining.

"I don't see how you could tell it because the problems that we have in the coalfields of Kentucky are obesity, smoking, lack of exercise, poor medical care and drug abuse," he said. "I'm sorry, I tried to stay to data . . . but I and a bunch of people who work there, grew up there, lived there our entire adult lives and I never heard that complaint once." He is a native of Prestonsburg.

Others weigh in

Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, told The New York Times that the decision to halt the study may have been justified: “The National Institute of Environmental and Health Sciences concluded in July that after examining available studies, it didn’t see evidence justifying a health hazard, noting that no conclusive evidence connected mountaintop mining with health effects and that studies often failed to account for extraneous health and lifestyle effects.”

Actually, the institute said it could not reach any conclusion because the existing research had a "strong potential for bias." It called for more research and concluded: "Without such work, uncertainty will remain regarding the impact of these practices on the health of the people who breathe the air and drink the water affected by MTR mining."

The American Public Health Association said in a statement that the study's suspension shows the Trump administration's "disregard for science and evidence when it comes to the environment and safeguarding health."

U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, who has introduced legislation to block new surface-mining permits until the health risks have been determined, said in a statement: “The fact that mountaintop-removal permits have been approved when there has never been a federal study on the health effects of mountaintop-removal mining is shameful enough. To now prevent this study from being completed would be reprehensible."

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