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Bil Lepp: On unnecessary hillbillies and mountaintop removal

By By Bil Lepp

The White House ordered the U.S. Department of the Interior to tell the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to cease research on the possible health effects of mountaintop removal. This was a $1 million study to be conducted over a two-year period.

The study was initiated, in part, after requests from citizen groups, the state Department of Environmental Protection and the State Bureau for Public Health.

No West Virginia government agency has ever been complicit in helping the coal industry circumvent health and environmental regulations, right?

Oh sure, the state government once called in the National Guard to suppress striking miners, and then President Harding offered federal troops and Army bombers to help put the strikers out of business. But, other than that, the state and national government always put the miners and the health of the miners’ families above their loyalty to the coal owners and operators. Cough, choke.

Honestly and without sarcasm, I think it is remarkable that the state Department of Environmental Protection and state Bureau for Public Health would ask the federal government to study the ill effects of mountaintop removal. I applaud their efforts.

The Washington Post (Aug. 21) explained: “In a statement about the decision, the National Mining Association referenced two analyses. The first, by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences ... said they [previous studies] didn’t show evidence justifying a health hazard and that the studies “often failed to account for extraneous health and lifestyle effects.” The second, made by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, said mountaintop mining now accounts for less than 1 percent of coal production and a study of health impact “may be unnecessary.”

To be clear, the National Mining Association is saying that because mountaintop removal is such a small part of the mining industry, the people affected by it simply aren’t worth worrying about. They are saying, “Even if this process is bad for the people who live near it, who cares? There are not enough of them to matter to us.”

The National Mining Association doesn’t care that that small percentage of people is most of Southern West Virginia.

I’m conflicted about coal mining. I wholeheartedly admit that I like electricity. I see the pride miners have in their jobs, and I want the families of miners to have a decent standard of living.

But, just as my views on mining are conflicted and slightly hypocritical, I cannot help but balk at the idea that the White House is doing this for the sole purpose of helping the miners. If a coal miner makes a decent living but, at the same time, the miner and the miner’s family suffer severe health problems from the job and the method of mining, then quality of life is not improved.

Stopping this study and ignoring the ill effects of mountaintop removal may well increase coal production, but it doesn’t, ultimately, help the people the president has championed.

Dare I say, halting this study might help the coal bosses at the top of the chain while hurting the miners and their families. As unprecedented as it is to suggest, maybe profit is more important to industry leaders and government officials then the health of Appalachian communities.

I’m sure it is just a coincidence that the White House ordered this study stopped shortly after billionaire coal operator Gov. Jim Justice switched back to the Republican Party at a rally for billionaire President Donald Trump in Huntington.

In case you missed President Trump’s recent speech in Phoenix, it went something like this: “I am not a racist. When you hurt one American you hurt every American. Love. Hope. Unity. I hate the Press. I also hate most Republican senate leaders. Love. Hope. Unity. America. Remember President Obama? He sucked. I like West Virginia coal miners. Gov. Jim Justice is a great man.”

So, obviously, the fact that billionaire coal operator Gov. Jim Justice got some love in the president’s 70-plus minute “unity and love except for the people I dislike” speech is no indication that the president is even thinking about what financial goals our governor might be plotting for the coal industry leaders at the expense of the miners.

Gov. Justice is a billionaire. He made a lot of that money from the physical sacrifices made by coal miners. Instead of crying about how regulations are costing him and his pals money, wouldn’t it be crazy if he was outraged that the federal government was willing to ignore the health of a sizable portion of West Virginia because “mountaintop mining now accounts for less than one percent of coal production and a study of health impacts may be unnecessary”?

The National Mining Association isn’t losing any sleep over the poor health of a bunch of unnecessary hillbillies, but shouldn’t our governor?

Bil Lepp, of South Charleston, is a writer and storyteller.

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