Interior Dept. halts study into Appalachian mining technique's likely health hazards

Story highlights

  • The study began last year and was expected to take two years to complete
  • It was measuring potential health risks for people living near surface coal mine sites in central Appalachia

(CNN)The Trump administration has halted a study of the health effects of a common mining technique in Appalachia, which is believed to deposit waste containing toxic minerals in ground waters.

A letter from the Interior Department directed the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to "cease all work" on a study of the potential health risks of mountaintop removal mining for people living near surface coal mine sites in central Appalachia. The Interior Department acknowledged in a statement that it had "put on hold" $1 million in funding for the two-year project as part of a review of its grants, which is focused on "responsibly using taxpayer dollars."
"The Trump Administration is dedicated to responsibly using taxpayer dollars and that includes the billions of dollars in grants that are doled out every year by the Department of the Interior," the statement said.
    Still, the National Academies -- a nongovernmental institution that researches and advises the government on science and technology -- plans to move forward with part of the research, and will hold previously scheduled public meetings this week in Kentucky, the Academies said in a statement.
    Political reaction was swift to the Trump administration's decision to suspend the study of "the potential relationship between increased health risks and living in proximity to sites that have been or are being mined or reclaimed for surface coal deposits," which began last year and was expected to take two years to complete.
    "Mountaintop removal mining has been shown to cause lung cancer, heart disease, and other medical problems," Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the ranking democrat on the House Committee of Natural Resources, said in a statement.
    "Clearly this administration and the Republican Party are trying to stop the National Academy of Sciences from uncovering exactly how harmful this practice is," Grijalva said.
    "It's infuriating that Trump would halt this study on the health effects of mountaintop removal coal mining, research that people in Appalachia have been demanding for years," said Bill Price, Senior Appalachia Organizing Representative for environmental advocacy group Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.

    A growing controversy

    Scientists estimate that mountaintop removal mining, a form of surface mining, has occurred on at least 500 Appalachian mountaintops. It became popular in the late 1960s as a way of harvesting coal deposits too thin to work from a coal mine.
    In this form of mining, the land is first cleared of forests and vegetation, then explosives are used to break up the first layer of rock into smaller pieces known as "spoil."
    A 2010 Government Accountability Office report, apparently the most recent available on the subject, showed that in 2008, West Virginia produced 69 million tons of coal from surface mining. Kentucky produced 51 million tons, while Virginia and Tennessee followed with 9 million and 2 million, respectively.
    That soil and rock mixture is supposed to be returned to the land after mining is complete, but often is placed as fill in nearby valleys, which can also block headwaters of streams. In addition, when the mined coal is cleaned, a "slurry" of toxic hard metals such as lead, arsenic, manganese, sodium, and sulfate is produced that makes its way into local streams and ground wells. It's that toxic mixture that is believed to be linked to various health problems in the local Appalachian communities.
    One study linked mountaintop mining to increased lung and kidney disease rates, as well as elevated death rates in surrounding communities. Another found an increase in birth defects.
    "Stopping this study is a ploy to stop science in its tracks and keep the public in the dark about health risks as a favor to the mining industry, pure and simple," Grijalva said. "Every time some reckless industry hurts working people, this administration is there to provide political cover."
    The National Academies statement said that the group's hope is that the Trump administration will resume the study.
    "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 said. "We are grateful to our committee members for their dedication to carrying forward with this study."