State announces review of studies linking mountaintop removal mining to illness

The Tomblin administration said Tuesday that it would initiate an evaluation of the growing body of studies that have found residents living near mountaintop removal coal-mining operations face increases risks of serious illnesses and premature death.

Bureau for Public Health Commissioner Dr. Rahul Gupta said that his agency would work with the state Department of Environmental Protection to examine the issue and to seek help from various federal scientific and regulatory agencies to review existing research on the subject.

“The analysis is something that is needed going forward,” Gupta said in an interview. “The bottom line here is to let science speak for itself. It’s time that we attempt to do that.”

The state’s plans to review the issue was revealed less than a week after DEP Secretary Randy Huffman told The Charleston Gazette that the studies linking mountaintop removal to health problems like cancer and birth defects deserved a “closer look” from state and federal officials. Word of the state’s plans also comes just a day after citizen groups concerned about mining’s health impacts protested outside the DEP’s office.

Gupta said that his plan would “engage surrounding states” such as Kentucky and Virginia to “evaluate the scientific research being conducted by academia, non-profit groups, and others with an emphasis on peer-reviewed research to better understand the issues.”

Also, Gupta said, his agency would work with the DEP to ask “federal partners” — such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control, and National Institutes of Health, and the federal Office of Surface Mining — to “seek relevant subject matter expertise allowing for the exploration of a federal-state, multi-agency partnership to conduct analysis of the existing research in the field.”

Gupta said he hopes to make contact with other states and with federal agencies in the next few weeks, but had no firm timeline for completing a review of the science.

“We’re planning to move on this relatively quickly,” Gupta said. “We need to find out is there a contribution, and what is that contribution and to what human diseases, and that’s when policy decisions have to be made.”

Chris Stadelman, communications director for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, said the governor is aware of the effort being made by Huffman and Gupta and “looks forward to hearing from them as that process moves forward.”

Over the past few years, former West Virginia University researcher Michael Hendryx and other scientists have 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 had for several years 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 an email message on Tuesday, Hendryx, who now works at Indiana University, said he welcomes “an independent review of this topic.”

Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said he had not heard about Gupta’s plan, but questioned the need for the state review of the mining-health research, which industry officials don’t believe is accurate.

Bo Webb, a coalfield activist pushing for federal legislation to block new mountaintop removal permits unless a federal study declares the practice safe, said Tuesday he was pleased with Gupta’s announcement. But, Webb said he remains concerned a government review of the sort Gupta outlined could be used by coal industry supporters to delay action to end mountaintop removal.

“I just hate to see any more research,” Webb said. “We don’t need anymore research. We have enough.”

Gupta said Tuesday that as part of his plan, his agency is already working to integrate existing DEP water and air quality data into a computer system that tracks public health trends around West Virginia.

While Gupta said that this would “significantly enhance our ability to analyze data,” Huffman acknowledged that existing DEP air quality data for localized impacts in small communities near mountaintop removal mining is not very extensive, and may not cover the ultrafine pollution particles from strip-mine blasting.

Gupta said that he wants to, among other things, examine how clearly research on mining and health impacts has been able to account for other potential causes of such illnesses. He also said that he was concerned that the research to date had not included actual measurements of pollutants in mining communities, but then acknowledged he had not yet read more recent peer-reviewed research that did include such data.

In one recent paper, Hendryx explained that the “precautionary principle” in environmental science argues that “prudent steps are required when there is evidence of environmental and corresponding public health problems, even if all causal links are not understood.”

Asked about the precautionary principle, Gupta said, “When studies start to show links, which means associations, not causations, I think it is important for us to pay attention,” Gupta said. “You do not need 100 percent. Not once have I mentioned to you that you need 100 percent causation, because that would be a fallacy itself. What you need is clear and convincing evidence.”

Reach Ken Ward Jr.

at kward@wvgazette.com,

304-348-1702

or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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