Cancelling Study on Mining and Health: an Update

By John McFerrin

For years, and probably decades, coalfield residents have known in their bones that living near surface coal mines made people sick.  This common knowledge began to be more focused in the early 2000s when more scientific studies began to appear documenting what people had long suspected to be true.  The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition maintains a list of studies on this topic.


The earliest mention of these studies that I could find in The Highlands Voice archives was in May, 2009, when Julian Martin called readers’ attention them in one of his articles.  In November, 2012, the Voice reported that the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and other groups had asserted in court that the United States Corps of Engineers should consider this evidence of health impacts in approving valley fills for strip mines.  In March, 2015, West Virginia announced that it would study the effects of strip mining on health.  It announced at the time that it would seek the help of federal scientific and regulatory agencies.

Finally, in August 2016, the federal Office of Surface Mining (a part of the Department of Interior) announced that it was going to have The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine conduct a study of the connection between surface mining and public health.  Its mission would be to review the evidence and determine what effect large surface mining operations have upon the health of those living nearby.

The study really got going in early 2017.  It was having public hearings, listening to experts, etc.

Then things changed.  Whether it was the effects of the 2016 election kicking in, a sudden spasm of fiscal responsibility, or any one of the myriad political winds swirling around Washington will never be clear.  All that is known for sure is that in August, 2017, the Office of Surface Mining told the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to stop work on the study.  At the time the Academies announced that the Department of Interior had “begun an agency-wide review of its grants and cooperative agreements in excess of $100,000, largely as a result of the Department’s changing budget situation.”

Since then nothing has happened.  A spokeswoman for the Department of Interior said in October that “The Trump Administration is dedicated to responsibly using taxpayer dollars.”  She said that the study was put “on hold” as part of a department wide review of grants and cooperative partnerships exceeding $100,000 that began in April.

The Department of Interior did not identify any other grant or cooperative partnership impacted by the review. The Department of Interior has declined to explain how or whether the money saved by not doing the study was spent.