By John McFerrin
The Natural Resources Committee of the United States House of Representatives has renewed its interest in the connection between strip mining and public health and why the United States Department of the Interior suddenly stopped a study of the connection. Its Chairman and the Chair of the Subcommittee on Energy and Resources have sent a letter to the Department of the Interior asking why it precipitously ended its study into the effects of mountaintop removal mining on public health.
A little history
For a long time, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy as well as other people have been concerned with the problem of large strip mines making people sick. The Highlands Voicehas had articles about it since at least 2009. In November, 2012, we published a listing of the then-existing studies on the correlation between large strip mines and illness. (The Highlands Voice, November, 2012, www.wvhighlands.org/2012/). In March, 2015, Cindy Rank did a story for The Highlands Voiceheadlined Human Health Impacts of MTR: What Will It Take? www.wvhighlands.org/2015/. In it she detailed efforts that had been made, with mixed success, to address this problem. We have also contended in court cases that regulators had a duty to consider the health impacts of mining in deciding whether to issue permits.
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. The Academies were founded to provide objective, nonpartisan advice to lawmakers. While the Office of Surface Mining would fund the study, neither the agency nor the coal industry would be represented on the study panel. This was supposed to ensure that the study would produce an objective assessment of the impacts of large surface mining upon public health.
At the time the study was announced 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.”
The study really got going in early 2017. It was having public hearings, listening to experts, etc.
Things changed 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.”
In early 2018, the National Academies announced that it had formally disbanded the study. It had become clear that that the Office of Surface Mining of the Department of the Interior would not provide any more money. The committee working on the project was released and the project terminated. While the Academies were eager to continue, the Department of the Interior ended all funding, making completing the study impossible.
The National Academies sought private funding without success.
The Inspector General of the Department of the Interior looked into this matter in 2018. In its report it concluded that the Department of the Interior never conducted a budgetary review and could not provide any criteria for deciding which grants would be continued.
Then nothing happened for a while. In October a spokeswoman for the Department of Interior said 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.
Now what has happened
The Committee on Natural Resources of the United States House of Representatives wants to know what’s going on.
The Committee has requested a long list of documents from the Department of the Interior/Office of Surface Mining. It asks for (a) communication between the Department and those doing the study; (b) records of what it did with the money that was allocated to this study and why the Department did not spend the money on the health study; (c) communications between Department officials and coal company executives about the study.
In addition to its general request for communication with coal company executives, it names three Department of the Interior officials and asks for their communications specifically. It also asks for communications with Peabody Energy and the Heartland Institute. The Heartland Institute is a conservative or libertarian think tank. It identifies itself as “globally recognized as the leading think tank promoting skepticism of man-caused catastrophic global warming.”
The Committee had sent letters in August and October, 2017, making requests for similar information. It did not receive a substantive response. Now that leadership has changed in the House of Representatives the response may be different this time.
For related information
The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition keeps a list of studies examining the effects of strip mining on public health. To look at its list, go to http://ohvec.org/mountaintop-removal-articles/health/.