W.Va. DEP’s Huffman: Strip-mine health studies deserve ‘closer look’

West Virginia’s top environmental regulator says studies that have found residents near mountaintop removal coal-mining operations face increased risks of serious illnesses and premature death deserve to be carefully examined by state and federal officials.

“I think it is something that is worthy of a closer look,” said Randy Huffman, secretary of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. “It is something that is worthy of consideration. The evidence that is being stated in some of the studies, that needs to be considered.”

Huffman did not specifically propose a plan for how the studies should or would be reviewed, but he said a variety of agencies on the state and federal levels would need to be involved in any such project. He mentioned the state Bureau for Public Health, the federal Office of Surface Mining and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as logical participants.

“I can’t take a study that someone hands me and make a policy call to stop a particular practice just in one state,” Huffman added. “If you really want something changed, you’re not going to get that by just picking on [the] DEP.”

The comments, made by Huffman during an interview earlier this week, come just days before an anti-mountaintop removal protest that citizen groups have scheduled for Monday outside the DEP’s Kanawha City headquarters, in Charleston.

Calling themselves “The People’s Foot” and the 11 a.m. event “No More MTR Permits Day,” the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and other groups are promoting the protest as an effort to demand that the DEP stop approving mountaintop removal permits and to encourage Congress to pass legislation to address the issue. Billboards around the area say, “Stop the Poisoning.”

In a news advisory, the citizen groups said the DEP “continues to ignore the studies that show mountaintop removal is drastically harming our health and cutting our lives short.”

“Time to put your foot down,” the advisory states. “No more mountaintop removal permits.”

Bo Webb, a longtime mountaintop removal opponent and one of the protest organizers, said he was pleased to hear of Huffman’s comments about the need to examine the health studies.

“I think it means something,” Webb said. “It’s a shift, an acknowledgment. We haven’t been able to get state leaders to even acknowledge the existence of the studies.”

While Huffman was already scheduled to be out of town the day of the protest, Webb and other citizen group leaders are expected to meet later in the day with DEP Deputy Secretary Lisa McClung, agency environmental advocate Wendy Radcliff and several other staffers, said DEP spokeswoman Kelley Gillenwater.

Former West Virginia University researcher Michael Hendryx and other scientists have, over the past few years, published more than two dozen peer-reviewed journal articles that examined the relationship between large-scale strip-mining operations in West Virginia and the health of residents who live near these mines.

The work has linked health and coal-mining data to show, among other things, that residents living near mountaintop removal mines face a greater risk of cancer, birth defects and premature death. Continuing research has tried to examine actual pollution levels near mining sites and in mining communities, to provide more answers about the potential impacts. The U.S. Geological Survey, though, has pulled funding for work its scientists were doing on mountaintop removal’s health effects.

Even as the studies have continued, though, state elected officials and other leaders have tried to dismiss or ignore the findings. Coal companies put together a $15 million research project, based at Virginia Tech, aimed at least partly at countering the health studies.

Coal industry lawyers have fought to keep the studies out of court cases over mining permits, and they are continuing an effort to investigate Hendryx’s work through a public-records lawsuit against WVU. In a Supreme Court filing, Alpha Natural Resources lawyers said the company needs the information “in order to evaluate the validity of the studies themselves and the conclusions reached in the Hendryx articles.”

“There are a myriad of issues attendant to these types of studies that are worthy of review,” Alpha’s lawyers wrote.

Huffman said this week that, while the DEP enforces environmental standards for the mining industry, his agency’s staff aren’t necessarily experts on the types of public-health issues raised in the mountaintop removal studies.

“I don’t say that as an excuse, but we just don’t have that kind of expertise,” Huffman said.

Huffman noted that the DEP did commission a $250,000 report that examined some aspects of air pollution from blasting associated with mountaintop removal.

“It’s not the last word on it or anything, but it adds to the body of knowledge out there,” Huffman said.

Gillenwater said the DEP report “showed that air quality near a Raleigh County operation was within a normal, safe range, even during blasting.” She said the DEP “has reviewed and will continue to look at several studies” on the issue, but that, “there is currently no conclusive data that would result in changes to the permit application review process.”

Hendryx, who now works at Indiana University, said the state’s report took samples in the wrong locations and also did not focus on the very tiny particles of rock and dust from strip-mine blasting that recent research has said creates “elevated risks to humans.”

Also, Hendryx noted that, since the state report was written, peer-reviewed journal articles have tied living near mountaintop removal operations to lung cancer and to blood inflammation that is predictive of cardiovascular disease.

“An analogy of a partially completed jigsaw puzzle may serve as illustration of the overall state of evidence in this area,” Hendryx wrote in the blood inflammation paper, published just last month. “Some of the puzzle pieces represent environmental evidence for impaired air and water quality caused by mining and present in mining communities. Some represent epidemiological evidence from mortality and morbidity data. Some represent laboratory evidence of biological harm caused by particulate matter from mining communities.

“The newly discovered piece presented in this paper shows evidence for biological impact among people living in mining communities,” he wrote. “All of these pieces are not yet put together into a single picture. The missing connectors will measure environmental exposure, dose, and biological impact all among the same persons who live in mining communities versus controls who do not.”

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

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