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USGS halts research on mountaintop removal’s public-health effects

Two years ago, Bill Orem and his team of researchers were setting up air monitors in the yards and on the porches of residents in Artie, a small Raleigh County community surrounded by mountaintop removal mines.

Orem, a chemist with the U.S. Geological Survey, was trying to piece together evidence about exactly what caused residents who live near Southern West Virginia’s large-scale mining operations to face increased risks of serious illnesses, including birth defects and cancer, and of premature death.

Since starting their work, Orem’s team has added much to what was already known about the issue: Air quality in communities near mountaintop removal is quite different from air quality in non-mining areas, with more particulate matter and higher concentrations of certain contaminants. Mountaintop removal neighbors have higher rates of certain respiratory diseases, including lung cancer. Also, air pollution particles in mining communities show higher levels of certain elements that indicate the dust is coming from “overburden,” or the rock that mountaintop removal operators blast apart to get at the coal underneath.

“The data is pretty startling for some of these things,” Orem said last week. “To me, it’s compelling enough that a more targeted health study needs to be conducted in these areas.”

However, if that more in-depth study is going to ever be done, it won’t be by Orem and his USGS team. Last year, the Obama administration quietly put the brakes on any new field work to gather data on the potential public-health threats posed by mountaintop removal.

Without warning, the USGS Energy Resources Program in February 2013 pulled its funding for the project. Agency managers diverted Orem and his team to research on the health and environmental effects of unconventional oil and gas extraction, such as hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale region of Pennsylvania and Northern West Virginia.

Douglas Duncan, interim director of the USGS Energy Resources Program, noted that natural gas plays a key role in President Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy, and that research on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” became an important administration priority as part of that strategy.

“We are always having to make tough decisions,” Duncan said. “There are lots and lots of worthy research projects.”

So, while the Obama administration pushes to increase the nation’s natural gas production in the hopes of reducing greenhouse gas pollution from the energy sector, the government-wide focus on increased drilling has the somewhat ironic effect of curbing official research into the potential public-health effects of strip mining for coal in Appalachia.

Other researchers say the move by the USGS was more complicated and was, at least partly, the result of the coal industry’s vocal reaction to studies that suggested mountaintop removal might be harming not just bugs and salamanders, but also people.

“I personally believe they were shut off for political purposes,” said Michael Hendryx, a former West Virginia University researcher whose more than two-dozen papers on mountaintop removal’s impact prompted the USGS investigation in the first place.

And while research on natural gas drilling’s environmental and health effects also undoubtedly will be controversial, that practice is carried out more broadly — in multiple states across the country, meaning that more researchers are interested and more funding is available for such work. Studies of mountaintop removal’s health effects have been fewer, and are conducted by a smaller group of scientists. Much of the work was done by Hendryx or by researchers partnering with him or building on his efforts.

As more research continued to be published by Hendryx and his partners, coal companies, including Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal and Patriot Coal, created a $15 million research effort based at Virginia Tech to respond to the public health studies. Industry lawyers have tried to keep the studies out of court cases over new mining permits, and coal company public relations officials have dismissed the findings.

Elected officials in West Virginia have generally ignored the growing body of studies showing health risks of living near mountaintop removal, but citizen activists have convinced lawmakers from other states to introduce legislation aimed at blocking new mining permits until further studies can show the practice is safe.

Coal River Valley resident Bo Webb, a leader of the Appalachian Health Emergency campaign, said it was “extremely disappointing to see funding for this much-needed research being diverted to fracking.”

“While fracking research is clearly an issue of need, it is already being addressed by scientists from all over the U.S.,” Webb said Friday. “On the other hand, mountaintop removal is being studied by only a handful of scientists operating on meager budgets. Our elected officials should be doing everything in their power to see to it that USGS scientists continue to focus on mountaintop removal.”

Before their funding was pulled, Orem’s team completed several presentations for scientific conferences. They have one paper undergoing review by a journal and a second one going through internal USGS review, Orem said.

The USGS has not stopped all research on mountaintop removal.

Last month, a team led by biologist Than Hitt published a study that found that Appalachian streams affected by mountaintop removal can have fewer than half as many fish species and a third as many total fish as other waterways in the region.

“Our results indicate that headwater mining may be limiting fish communities by restricting the prey base available for fish,” Hitt said. “For instance, fish species with specialized diets of stream insects were more likely to be lost from the streams over time than fish species with more diverse diets.”

That study, though, was conducted by a different section of the USGS, and it wasn’t focused on human health. Still, Hitt’s paper, published in the peer-reviewed journal Freshwater Science, added to the growing body of scientific literature outlining the serious environmental impact of mountaintop removal.

Earlier this month, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientists Greg Pond and Margaret Passmore published a study reporting that “sustained biological impacts” of mountaintop removal could be found in creeks downstream from valley fills that were “reclaimed” up to 30 years ago.

The study, published in the journal Environmental Management, said that while the valley fills examined were built pursuant to permits issued under the strip-mining law and the Clean Water Act — which require mined land to be reclaimed to its original or higher use and mandate that mining not cause or contribute to water-quality violations — Pond and Passmore’s team found “sustained ecological damage in headwaters streams draining” valley fills “long after reclamation was completed.”

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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