The Perry County Public Library in Hazard, Ky. Is located along Black Gold Boulevard, a name that recalls the coal-generated wealth of these hills. On a recent Tuesday evening, however, the library was the venue for a hearing on the total cost of mining that coal.
A team from the National Academy of Sciences came to hear what the public had to say about the health effects of surface mining.
East Kentucky resident and artist Jeff Chapman Crane explained to the Academy committee what life was like near sites known as mountain top mining mines.
âThe first sounds you hear are the machines, the bulldozers and loaders, the huge dump trucks,â he said. âYou wake your son up to get up with a cough from the dust, or the smell of water, or who knows what. You try not to think about the long term consequences.
For more than a decade, residents of the Ohio Valley have been asking government agencies to respond to the growing body of emerging science that connects surface coal mining to health concerns in neighboring communities. Last year, the prestigious National Academy launched a study on the issue.
Many residents who spoke at the hearings in Hazard and Lexington told the Academy committee they wanted answers to long-standing health issues.
“This study is well overdue and it is very much needed,” said Stephen Sanders. He runs the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Whitesburg, Kentucky. He urged the committee to examine the effects of dust from mining operations. âIt is very important that we have a good scientific investigation into these matters. “
Other residents who work in the coal industry spoke out against the study and pointed to other more pressing health concerns.
“I am very disappointed to have seen the taxpayer dollars of the people of this community who face real struggles and real health disparities submitted to this cause,” said the president of the Kentucky Coal Association. , Tyler White.
Virginia Coal and Energy Alliance chairman Harry Childress agreed.
“We believe our health problems are the result of heredity and our bad personal habits and choices, not the industry that has provided me and many others with jobs and care. health, âhe said.
On August 18, after months of work by the 11-member committee of scientists, the Trump administration ordered the Academy to cease work, citing a review of the Home Department’s budget.
The move has alarmed citizen groups in Coal Country and many scientists who are now wondering what will happen to the research and whether they will get answers to the many questions about how mining affects public health. .
Public pressure on West Virginia state agencies in 2013 launched demands on federal agencies to review the growing body of research that has led some scientists to call for a moratorium on the practice known as mining on top of a mountain. The Obama administration’s Home Office and its Office of Surface Mine Recovery and Enforcement have contacted the National Academy, which began its study last year.
But a letter from the Trump administration’s Home Office cited an ongoing budget review and called on the Academy to immediately cease all activity on the study.
“The Trump administration is committed to responsible use of taxpayer dollars and that includes the billions of dollars in grants that are distributed each year by the Home Office,” wrote a spokesperson for the Interior in an email response to ReSource.
âTo ensure the Department is using taxpayer dollars in a way that advances the Department’s mission and fulfills roles mandated by Congress, in April the Department began reviewing grants and cooperative partnerships. that exceed $ 100,000. As such, the $ 1,000,000 funding agreement has been suspended, âthe email continued.
People familiar with the operations of the National Academy say it’s extremely rare for a sponsoring organization to stop an ongoing study.
“I’ve never seen a study stopped in the middle,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington-based advocacy group. Rosenberg participated in numerous National Academy studies while serving with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He said he was skeptical of the reason given by the Home Office for the stop work order.
âThey have a budget, it’s a continuing resolution from last year, there was no provision that said, ‘Oh, we’re cutting back on your grant program,’ he said. Money was well known, this is a two-year study in its second year. So, you know, that’s a very slim excuse.
There is little debate that the health outcomes of the Appalachian coal basins rank among the worst in the country. But communities here remain bitterly divided over the reasons for these health problems.
Charles Snavely, Kentucky cabinet secretary for energy and environment and former coal executive, told the meeting with the National Academy committee that he had never heard from anyone in his community ascribing a problem health in coal mining.
âThe people of eastern Kentucky who have lived there their entire lives have serious health problems,â he said. “They are linked to obesity, lack of exercise, lack of medical care and drug addiction, these are the things that concern us.”
Environmental scientists and epidemiologists who have studied the issue say it is difficult to prove mining practices directly cause illness. University of Maryland environmental scientist Margaret Palmer said it is very difficult to demonstrate the health effects of environmental exposure due to complex factors such as lifestyle and health status .
âProving direct causation,â she wrote in an email, âis not an option for obvious ethical reasons. But she said the scientific evidence is now strong enough that living near surface mines “puts a person at a much higher risk of health problems.”
Much of the research into the health effects of mining began with Michael Hendryx, a professor of environmental health now at Indiana University. Hendryx and his collaborators published numerous studies that linked mining to various health problems for people living nearby, including increased rates of cancer, lung disease and birth defects.
âThere is no doubt in my mind that this is a harmful practice for public health,â he said.
However, a recent review of the research by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences revealed the need for further study. The authors stated that there was “high potential for bias” in the current literature regarding effects on human health.
Hendryx refutes the idea that his work reflects a bias.
âI think this is nonsense,â he said. “My work has never been supported by a special interest group.”
Hendryx said he was concerned the order to shut down the work of the Academy was politically motivated, given what he called the Trump administration’s “anti-science and pro-coal orientation”.
Michael McCawley is Acting Chair of the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health Sciences at the School of Public Health at the University of West Virginia. He has published research that demonstrates the toxic effects of exposure to dust in communities near surface mines. He also said more research was needed, but the existing science was solid.
“The studies we’ve published so far do not, I think, require National Academies approval,” McCawley said. “These are peer-reviewed studies and they’re there for the public to look at and say, ‘This is what we need to be worried about.'”
Duke University ecologist Emily Bernhardt, who has studied the effects of mountain top removal on water quality, said she had hoped the Academy’s work would help resolve some of the outstanding issues.
âAt this point, it is not clear why people living near mines on top of mountains have poorer health outcomes. And that’s one of the reasons that this Academy summary was going to be so important, âshe said. “What is the most likely route of exposure?” Because I think the public health results are pretty clear. “
The chairman of the Academy’s study committee is Paul Locke, professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He told reporters at Hazard that his committee members were eager to complete the work they had started.
âWe think this is a really valuable study and we will wait,â he said. “And every time they finish their exam and give us the go ahead, we’re going to come back immediately and do it.”
The Home Office has not indicated when the review will be completed or if the study will resume.
ReSource reporter Mary Meehan and Mimi Pickering from partner station WMMT contributed material for this story.
Correction: Mr. Locke’s first name is Paul, not John, as it originally appeared in this story.