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Mountaintop removal mining study singled out for Interior cease-work order

Gazette-Mail file photo
A mountaintop removal mine in Southern West Virginia.

Researchers from around the country are continuing to use Interior Department funding to examine the effects and efficiency of chemical dispersants in cleaning up oil spills. Operating under the direction of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, other experts are studying the nation’s water resource needs. Another group of scientists are getting started on a review of U.S. Geological Survey laboratories, again, with funding from the Interior Department.

But a panel that is trying to understand why dozens of studies show mountaintop removal mining appears to be making coalfield residents sick has gotten orders from the Trump administration to “cease” its work.

Interior Department officials have downplayed the move. They say it’s just part of a review of all Interior grants and partnerships that exceed $100,000.

But that mountaintop removal study is the only one of eight current Interior-funded National Academies projects that has been put on even a temporary hold, according to Academies officials. Seven other projects with funding of $100,000 or more are continuing without any such orders from the department or anyone else in the Trump administration.

The mountaintop removal study, with a $1 million price tag, is the largest of the studies. The total Interior funding for the other seven is roughly $2.8 million, according to National Academies officials. Individual project funding ranges from $100,000 to $715,000.

Interior and its Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement have not answered questions that tried to obtain more information about their actions, issuing only a short statement on the matter after it became public two weeks ago.

“The Trump administration is dedicated to responsibly using taxpayer dollars and that includes the billions of dollars in grants that are doled out every year by the Department of Interior,” said the agency statement, which OSM spokesman Chris Holmes asked be attributed to Heather Swift, press secretary for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. “In order to ensure the Department is using tax dollars in a way that advances the Department’s mission and fulfills the roles mandated by Congress, in April the Department began reviewing grants and cooperative partnerships that exceed $100,000. As such, the $1,000,000 funding agreement [for the mountaintop removal study] was put on hold.”

Interior officials issued their stop-work order to the National Academies in a phone call and follow-up letter on Aug. 18, four months after the department said its review of contracts had begun. The order came just days before the study committee had a public hearing and business meeting planned for the coalfields of Kentucky.

At least some members of the scientific community think something more than a routine review of expenditures going on.

In an editorial last week, the respected scientific journal Nature called the Interior Department move an “alarming precedent.”

“This is the first time that the administration of President Donald Trump has canceled a NASEM study that has already started -- a move that has rarely happened in the past, according to the academies,” the editorial said.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.

The Nature editorial noted that just launching the mountaintop removal study “was itself an achievement, given the political nature of the topic.”

“Although much is known about the risks of coal mining to miners, little research has been done on its health impacts on local communities, not least because of attempts by the coal industry to hinder such work,” the editorial said. “Mining companies and trade organizations have sued for access to the e-mails of academics researching mountaintop removal, and have fought to keep peer-reviewed studies from being used in court.”

Coal companies funded a major effort to try to discredit the mountaintop removal health studies, targeting especially the work of Michael Hendryx, a former West Virginia University researcher who co-authored many of the peer-reviewed papers on the subject. Among the coal industry critics of the research was J. Steven Gardner, a Kentucky mining engineer identified by E&E News as the front-runner to be nominated as OSM director for the Trump administration.

Last year, the Obama administration OSM committed to providing more than $1 million for the study, in response to growing pressure from citizen groups and requests from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the state Bureau for Public Health in understanding studies by experts at West Virginia University and other institutions that found increased risks of birth defects, cancer, other illnesses and premature death among residents living near mountaintop removal sites in Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky.

At the time the study was announced, in August 2016, a news release from the OSM cited a “growing amount of academic research” that suggests “possible correlations” between increased public health risks and living near mountaintop removal sites. The agency said there was a need to examine existing studies, identify research gaps and look for “new approaches to safeguard the health of residents living near these types of coal-mining operations.”

President Donald Trump has promised that he will bring back coal jobs — something most experts have said is very unlikely — and the Interior Department earlier this month was touting its efforts to streamline the review of new mining permits for potential effects on endangered species.

“With the near-daily news about the Trump administration weakening climate and environmental protections, it is easy to become fatigued,” the Nature editorial said. Yet the move to pre-empt the prestigious and independent NASEM is particularly concerning. It raises questions about what other studies could be canceled if the government fears their results. It is another blow for science and for academic freedom.”

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

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