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Gazette editorial: Who cares if some coalfield citizens get sick and die?

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Who cares if some babies in Southern West Virginia are born with birth defects, or an unusual number of people develop cancer? Not the Trump administration.

The U.S. Office of Surface Mining told the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to stop reviewing studies on health risks of Appalachian residents living near mountaintop removal coal mine sites.

Why would anyone want to know about that?

The review started last year, way late in President Barack Obama’s second term, at the urging of citizen groups, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the state Bureau for Public Health. West Virginia authorities, experts any other time, had asked for help in understanding studies coming out of West Virginia University and other places.

Those researchers found increased risks of birth defects, cancer, other illnesses and premature death among people living near mountaintop removal sites in Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky. The Office of Surface Mining had put about $1 million toward the research project. (Interestingly, a different federal agency during Obama’s time, U.S. Geological Survey, stopped research on mountaintop removal’s health effects in February 2013.)

This time, federal researchers were in the process of hearing from residents in Kentucky when they got the order to stop.

A budget review of projects over $100,000 was the reason given for telling researchers to back off, and a National Academies spokesman said they are ready to get back to their important work after the review is completed.

Is that likely? This administration is anti-science and very pro-coal. It is not so pro-coal miner, or coal miner’s family or community. A clearer understanding of how and why coalfield residents get sick, die and have too many birth defects might get in the way of enthusiasm to mine more coal at all costs.

Much of the serious scientific work on this subject was done by Michael Hendryx, formerly of WVU. WVU lost him to Indiana after Hendryx’s groundbreaking coalfield research was published.

In reaction, the coal industry funded a lot of activity to discredit Hendryx’s work and obfuscate the issue. Hendryx found enough reason to be concerned about West Virginia residents. The responsible thing to do is to keep studying — and also to take steps to prevent people from being exposed to possible life-shortening pollutants.

The responsible thing is not to just cut off intelligent inquiry and pretend that what is not known — or just not acknowledged — won’t hurt people.

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