Trump administration officials have told the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to halt a review of the increased public health risks faced by Appalachian residents who live near mountaintop removal coal-mining sites, the academies revealed in a statement issued Monday.
Word of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement order was disclosed by the academies just hours before the scientific panel conducting the study was scheduled to hear from coalfield residents at a public meeting Monday evening in Hazard, Kentucky, and then hold two days of business meetings in Lexington.
Academies spokesman William Kearney said in a statement that the OSM told the academies in a letter Friday to “cease all work” on the mountaintop removal study. The letter indicated that Interior had begun “an agency-wide review” of grants and cooperative agreements in excess of $100,000, “largely as a result of the Department’s changing budget situation,” the academies said.
“The National Academies believes this is an important study and we stand ready to resume it as soon as the Department of the Interior review is completed,” the statement from Kearney said.
Last year, the 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.
Officials from the OSM did not respond to requests for information or questions about the matter.
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.”
Michael Hendryx, a former WVU researcher who co-authored most of the significant scientific papers on the issue, said Monday that the move by the OSM shouldn’t come as a surprise. Hendryx noted that another Interior agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, had, in February 2013 — under the Obama administration — pulled funding for scientific work on mountaintop removal’s potential health effects.
“I’d like to think this is a temporary suspension of the project for a routine review and that it will soon re-continue, but I have my doubts,” said Hendryx, who is now at Indiana University in Bloomington. “We know the current administration is anti-science and pro-coal, so you have to wonder if it is politically motivated.”
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.
Bill Price, a Sierra Club organizer in Southern West Virginia, issued a statement that called the OSM action “infuriating.”
“Trump has once again shown the people of Appalachia that we mean nothing to him,” Price said in the statement. “From his proposed budget cuts to the Appalachian Regional Commission, to pushing to take away health care from thousands of Appalachian people to now stripping doctors and scientists of the ability to warn us about the health effects of mountaintop coal removal, Trump’s showing that he’s only been pretending to care about our communities.”
Luke Popovich, a vice president and spokesman at the National Mining Association, said Monday that the study “may be unnecessary” because mountaintop removal produces a small and shrinking share of the nation’s coal.
Popovich also said in an email that officials from the National Toxicology Program reported in July that a review of existing literature on the subject — a related, but separate project from the National Academies’ effort — said it “didn’t see any evidence justifying a health hazard.” But in making that report, officials from the National Toxicology Program cautioned that their literature review found that more research was needed on the matter.
“There was not enough evidence to say there were health effects,” said Abee Boyles, a health scientist who briefed the academies’ panel on the National Toxicology Program effort. “There was definitely not enough evidence to say there were no health effects. The evidence was inadequate.”
The National Academies panel’s work was well underway, with the group having held five meetings since March, including public sessions in Logan County. The academies said this week’s meetings in Kentucky will be held as scheduled, with permission from the OSM. Results of the study were expected to be made public in spring 2018.
Earlier this year, Trump proposed a budget for the 2018 fiscal year that would have given the OSM $129 million, a cut of nearly $111 million. A House Appropriations Committee version of the Interior Department’s budget would give the OSM $213 million in the 2018 fiscal year, a smaller cut than Trump proposed, but still $40 million less than the 2017 budget year.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.