The Trump administration had no reason to stop a study on the effects of mountaintop removal mining, a panel told Congress Tuesday.
The study, called “Potential Human Health Effects of Surface Coal Mining Operations in Central Appalachia,” was put on hold and later terminated after the Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining said it was reviewing grants and agreements that cost more than $100,000.
“I think they believed that the study was going to come out with evidence that supported banning mountaintop mining, that they knew what the evidence was,” said Michael McCawley, clinical associate professor in West Virginia University’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health Sciences. “And the reason why I know that they know what the evidence was is [that] I know most of the panel members; they’re colleagues of mine.”
McCawley was one of five witnesses, three from Kentucky and two from West Virginia, to testify Tuesday before the House Natural Resources Committee’s subcommittee on energy and mineral resources. The purpose of the hearing was to discuss the health and environmental ramifications of mountaintop removal mining.
The Office of Surface Mining had committed $1 million to the study in August 2016 after citizen groups and state officials asked for research and cited studies that have linked birth defects, cancers and premature death with living near mountaintop removal sites.
“We felt abandoned, we felt as if our lives didn’t matter, as if we wasn’t counted as citizens or human beings,” Donna Branham, a nurse in Lenore, Mingo County, said of the decision to end the study.
In her many years as a nurse, she said, she saw an uptick in respiratory and health problems resulting from mountaintop removal.
“State regulations do little to nothing to protect our people from these happenings,” she testified. “That’s one reason why we’re here today, so we can ask for your help.”
Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., talked Tuesday about proposed legislation that would put a moratorium on mountaintop removal coal mining permits until the Department of Health and Human Services conducts a study on the health effects. The legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives last week.
“Do not get me wrong: I am personally opposed to mountaintop removal mining and believe it should be banned entirely,” he testified. “Mining companies destroy our mountains, clear large tracts of trees and wildlife, pollute our rivers and streams, tear up and wash away the roads we rely on, and leave behind a barren earth that is completely unusable without major remediation.”
Until the effects are studied, he said, it shouldn’t happen at all.
At one point in the hearing, Chairman Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., was the only congressman in the room and decided to ask more questions because he was “fascinated” by the panel.
“My question is, Appalachian communities are hurting because of the long-term decline in coal mining,” he said. “And it’s my belief that it’s not coming back, regardless of what was said.”