CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Coal operators can and should take more aggressive steps to reduce dust emissions from blasting and heavy equipment at mountaintop removal mines, according to new studies released this week as part of a controversial industry-funded research project.More thorough mine planning and careful mining practices could reduce dust emissions and help companies control drainage, improve reclamation, and eventually curb water pollution, according to the studies, authored by engineers at West Virginia University and the University of Kentucky."Everything that goes outside of the mine site, you could solve that," said Vladislav Kecojevic, a WVU mining engineer. "You can get it at a cheap price, but the benefits of it would be tremendous."Other scientists, including experts from the U.S. Geological Survey, have been examining dust from strip-mine blasting as one potential link between mountaintop removal and high rates of illnesses found in coal-mining communities in the Appalachian coalfields.Kecojevic said that mining operations in Australia are using large water sprays to control dust emissions. He said he's seen similar techniques in Wyoming's Powder River Basin, but not in surface mines east of the Mississippi River."That dust will not go anywhere," Kecojevic said, showing a photograph of water sprays beating down dust from a shovel at an Australian mine. "If they're able to solve the problem, we can do it here in West Virginia as well."Kecojevic was among the scientists who presented papers in the final day of a symposium sponsored by the Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science, or ARIES, an industry-funded project to research coal's environmental, economic and public health impacts in the region.Officials from Alpha Natural Resources and other coal companies joined with Virginia Tech to form ARIES, a five-year, $15 million effort to fund research at a variety of universities. Industry officials say they got involved to respond to studies that linked mountaintop removal to water quality damage and public health concerns, and to combat the Obama administration's crackdown on mining.During a four-day conference in Charleston, researchers presented about 70 new studies. ARIES developed its own voluntary peer-review process, but many of the study authors declined to take part.The symposium, held at the Charleston Marriott, featured a long list of papers that tried to dissect and criticize new federal water quality guidance that mining operators have successfully challenged in court. An entire session consisted of six papers that tried to pick apart a series of WVU studies that said coalfield residents living near mountaintop removal face increased risks of serious illnesses and premature death.But a variety of other studies released this week affirmed that mountaintop removal is damaging the environment, and some looked into new and possibly safer ways to handle coal slurry disposal, more efficiently avoid toxic selenium pollution and improve stability of valley fills and mining impoundments.On Wednesday, three new papers were presented that examined dust emissions from surface mines and tried to come up with better models for predicting and minimizing such emissions.Catherine Johnson of the University of Kentucky said that blasting modeling used by industry and regulators typically focuses on reducing vibrations and noise and keeping rocks from flying off mine sites. Less has been done, Johnson said, about other blasting-related issues, such as lessening dust or ensuring rocks are the right type and size to minimize pollution runoff when used in reclamation."Clearly, a balance between operational cost and mitigation of environmental effects must be found," Johnson said.Kecojevic agreed, saying, "In the past, we've focused on having the most productive and having the lowest cost, but for some reason, the environmental impacts didn't come to the forefront.""We can't run away from it," he said. "We have to deal with it. At the end of the day, every dollar you spend on reducing effects on environment and public health is worth it."Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.