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Research on mountaintop removal health effects adequate, panel told

Dozens of studies already published about mountaintop removal coal mining’s effects on public health provide adequate evidence to support ending the practice to protect coalfield residents, a former West Virginia University researcher and leading author on the subject told a National Academy of Sciences panel on Tuesday.

“We know enough,” researcher Michael Hendryx told the panel during a meeting in Washington. “If all we do is call for more research, we’re asking people to be research subjects without their consent.”

While at WVU, Hendryx became a target for coal industry criticism when he published dozens of peer-reviewed papers that found coalfield residents living near mountaintop removal operations faced increased risks of cancer, birth defects and premature death, among other health problems.

The National Academy of Sciences, with funding from the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, is conducting a two-year study of the issue, an exercise that in many ways amounts to a review of scientific papers that Hendryx either authored or inspired with his work at WVU. Hendryx, who is not on the academy panel, now is an assistant professor of public health at the University of Indiana Bloomington.

The project was announced in August 2016 and funding was in place before the Donald Trump administration — which has promised to roll back regulations on the coal industry — took office. State Public Health Commissioner Dr. Rahul Gupta and former state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman had asked the U.S. Interior Department for help on the issue, and Interior’s OSM provided $1 million in funding for the academy review.

West Virginia political and governmental leaders have mostly 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.

Abee Boyles, a health scientist with the National Toxicology Program, told the academy panel on Tuesday that her agency’s review of existing literature on the subject — a related, but separate project from the academy panel’s efforts — found that published papers that have found no adverse health effects from mountaintop removal “had energy sector funding.”

“There is something going on here with funding because we see differences,” Boyles said of the industry-backed research. “There was definitely a difference by funding source.”

Boyles, though, also said that the literature review found that more research was needed, and that the published work so far lacked some important data, such as details about specific human exposures to pollutants and other potential factors in illnesses, such as smoking or poor diet.

“There was not enough evidence to say there were health effects,” Boyles said. “There was definitely not enough evidence to say there were no health effects. The evidence was inadequate.”

Hendryx, though, said that scientists serving on the panel should remember and follow the “precautionary principle,” which holds that when an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or public health, precautionary measure should be taken even if some complicated cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established yet.

“There’s always going to be some doubt,” Hendryx said. “We know there is a problem in health. We know there is a problem in the environment. For us to just call for more research is unethical.”

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

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