National Academy of Sciences to study mountaintop removal health effects

Vivian Stockman courtesy photo | Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

An expert team being appointed by the National Academy of Sciences will examine a “growing amount of academic research” that suggests “possible correlations” between increased public health risks for Appalachian residents and living near mountaintop removal coal mining, the Obama administration announced Wednesday.

A 12-member committee from various fields — ranging from epidemiologists to mining engineers and medical experts to regulatory decision-makers — will 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,” according to an Interior Department news release and a study plan from the academy.

The national scientific review follows a series of more than two-dozen studies — mostly by former West Virginia University researcher Michael Hendryx — that raised serious concern about increased risk of cancer, birth defects and premature death among coalfield residents living near large-scale surface coal-mining operations.

“I welcome the independent review from the NAS on the research evidence for public health correlates related to coal mining in Appalachia,” said Hendryx, who published his first study on the issue in 2007 and now is a professor at the Indiana University School of Public Health. “I think it is a positive step for the work that has been done to receive this attention.”

The federal scientific effort also comes after West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman surprised citizen groups in March 2015 — on the eve of a protest planned at his agency’s headquarters — by publicly saying that the health studies needed to be more closely examined by regulators, and the commitment less than a week later by Huffman and state Public Health Commissioner Dr. Rahul Gupta for a review of the issue.

Before then, West Virginia political and governmental leaders had either ignored the growing body of science on mountaintop removal’s health effects or tried to belittle the work.

Coal industry officials have likewise attacked the studies, funding a large effort to discredit the work and, at one point, going so far as to suggest that any increased risk of disease was caused by inbreeding among Appalachian residents. Coal industry lawyers have successfully worked to keep the health studies from being considered in court cases over mining permits, and they waged a mostly unsuccessful public-records lawsuit targeting Hendryx’s research files.

In a statement issued Wednesday, National Mining Association Vice President Luke Popovich said the Obama administration also should perform “studies showing the heavily documented health effects from joblessness, declining living standards, and the despair they create in coal communities.”

Popovich said the industry group welcomes “any legitimate effort to improve health and safety in and around mines,” but that “we question the value of assigning a health study to a committee comprised of experts in statistics and regulatory decision-making who will spend a million dollars to do nothing more than hold public hearings and reexamine existing academic research.”

Over the past decade, the work by Hendryx and others 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.

Saying the state needed scientific help in sorting out the issue, Huffman and Gupta asked for assistance from a variety of agencies, including the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Gupta said his office did not have the in-house expertise on the subject, and that he expects the National Academy team to include “some of the best research minds in the world.”

“We are extremely grateful for the cooperation of these agencies and their efforts to conduct in-depth reviews into what we consider to be a very important issue,” the DEP and the state Department of Health and Human Resources, parent agency of the Bureau for Public Health, said in a joint statement.

Already, since fall 2015, the National Toxicology Program at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has been quietly working, in response to the state’s requests, on a review of existing literature on the issue and, just last week, finalized a list of the published papers it was to include in that examination.

The announcement Wednesday of the National Academy project was made by the OSM more than a year after that agency, during a visit to Charleston by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, said it was going to ask the academy to get involved.

The OSM said it had commited $1 million to the project but would not have a role in the research, the development of the final report or identification of any findings that might result from the study.

The OSM said the experts will have backgrounds in areas such as mining engineering, epidemiology, public health, environmental medicine, statistics and regulatory decision-making. They will come from academia, state government agencies, industry and other nongovernmental organizations, the OSM said. None of the experts participating will be active members of the coal industry or any government agency that regulates mining, the OSM said.

Citizen-activist Bo Webb, who has worked with Hendryx and campaigned for a federal law to block new mining permits unless studies find mountaintop removal to be safe, welcomed word of the National Academy study, but also urged regulatory agencies like the state DEP to “follow the precautionary principle and withhold any new and pending permits” until the study “conclusively determines that mountaintop removal does not pose a threat to our lives.”

DEP spokeswoman Kelley Gillenwater said the agency has no plans to withhold permits, as Webb suggested. Gillenwater acknowledged that mountaintop removal — like coal mining in general — is on the decline in West Virginia, but said getting to the bottom of the health effects still is important.

“Discovering the potential negative impacts to health and the environment are still important, whether you’re talking about one surface mine or a thousand,” Gillenwater said. “The DEP still believes this is an important issue to study and is grateful this research is being conducted.”

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

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