National Academies Investigate Health Impacts

By Cindy Rank

It is never pleasant living near any kind of coal mining operation and the smallest mines can cause health and property damage. However, the scale and location of the big mountaintop removal and other large scale surface mines and surface mine complexes approved since the early1990s have expanded exponentially and so has the harm that accompanies living near that type of mining.

In 2015 after years of debate and after dozens of peer-reviewed and published studies have shown residents near mountaintop removal mines face a greater risk of cancer, birth defects, respiratory and cardiac disease, former West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman and WV Public Health Commissioner Dr. Rahul Gupta asked for assistance from a variety of agencies, including the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

In August 2016 a news release from the US Department of the Interior stated, “At the request of the State of West Virginia, Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) will fund an independent examination of existing research concerning the potential correlation between increased human health risks and living near surface coal mine sites in Central Appalachia. The $1 million study will be conducted by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) over a two-year period.”

NASEM will “examine 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” and to “Identify gaps in research and needs for additional research that may assist in the development of new approaches to safeguard the health of residents living near these types of coal mining operations.”  (from NASEM Statement of Task)

The National Academies study committee held a meeting in Washington D.C. in March of 2017.  The first of four additional public meetings was held May 23, 2017 at Chief Logan State Park Lodge in Logan, West Virginia.

After a site visit to a nearby mine (Pritchard/Tyler Morgan) the National Academies committee conducted listening sessions with three afternoon panels (representatives from WV DEP & VA DMME, WV Coal Association, and citizen groups – Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch, and West Virginia Highlands Conservancy).

At the town hall meeting later that evening a dozen or so courageous community members shared their personal experiences.  Not to be outdone and even though the hearing wasn’t about granting or denying a permit, miners nonetheless appeared in equal numbers to not just present their opinions but to jeer at, deride and belittle those who claimed to be harmed by mining in their communities.

Whether pollution from mining operations results in diminished diversity and the extirpation of aquatic species as in Twentymile Creek or the deformed fish in the Mud River Reservoir, years of data have clearly shown something bad is happening near large scale surface mines. …Studies from the 2005 EIS should have been sufficient to sound the alarm and call for action not only about damage to streams and water resources, but also about the possible impacts to human health in communities near these same mining operations.  But here we are some 15 years later and still mumbling to ourselves….. Let us hope this NASEM study doesn’t just kick the can down the road, but seriously provides another step or two forward to resolving these debates and actually saving peoples’ lives.





The following are highlights of written comments submitted on behalf of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy:

1) The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy believes that federal and state environmental laws and the regulatory agencies charged with implementing and enforcing those laws are meant to protect human health and welfare by way of protecting the environment, the water, air, land, etc, that we all live in and depend on.

2) We believe that human health impacts are an essential aspect of the cumulative impacts assessment required by law.  To that end, we have encouraged by action, comment, and litigation that regulatory agencies include appropriate considerations of potential health impacts as part of the permitting process when evaluating mine permit applications.

3) We believe agencies responsible for a balancing of needs required by the Surface Mine Law have, for far too long, ignored and avoided consideration of the human health impacts of coal mining, and of large scale mining in particular.

4) We believe the fundamental principle of the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act is to minimize and then repair harm within the mine permit boundaries and to PREVENT harm off-site, outside of those permit boundaries – including harm to human health of those living downstream and downwind.

5) We support the ongoing research and efforts of Michael Hendrix of Indiana University, Melissa Ahern of Washington State, Bill Orem of US Geological Society, Michael McCawley of West Virginia University, and others who have published peer-reviewed studies that already document the health disparities between people living near big surface mines and communities away from such mines. We believe those studies are well-documented and provide a clear link between large scale surface mines and unprecedented negative public health consequences to people living nearby (e.g. birth defects, cancer, cardiac and pulmonary disease, gall bladder disease, hypertension, mental health and other stress related debilitating problems).

6) It is important to note that, contrary to comments by industry, although non-mining socio-economic factors contribute to health problems in West Virginia and Appalachia, they cannot explain the health disparities reported in these studies. As noted in much of the research, significant correlations between health problems and mining persist even after statistical adjustment for age, smoking, alcohol consumption, obesity, poverty, education, availability of doctors, and other risk factors. And health disparities are present not just for men, who experience most on-the-job exposures, but for women and children who live near the mines as well.

7) We support the ongoing research and efforts of academics and scientists such as Margaret Palmer, Emily Bernhardt, Petra Wood and others who are currently documenting changes to (and often decline of) air, water, soil, and forest quality, and changes in the diversity and ecosystem health of aquatic, as well as bird and animal species in and around massive large scale surface mine complexes.  We urge consideration of these studies as they contribute to understanding about how changes in the environment can impact the health of people who live near those mine sites.

8) We appreciate that state and federal agencies as well as members of Congress have at long last called for a serious review of the studies that have begun to define and document the human health impacts of large scale surface mines and that they have seen fit to engage the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) to conduct this study.

9) We stand with the communities and residents of West Virginia and Appalachia for whom negative health impacts from air and water pollution are more than just words and numbers on a piece of paper, more than mere issues to be discussed or documented in reports, but rather are devastating real life experiences affecting the health of their families and friends.

10) We encourage the National Academies study panel to regard with great concern the dozens of existing peer-reviewed studies and ongoing research into these matters. And we urge that you recommend as strongly as possible how best to advance what has been and is being done to not only document but also to prevent the deleterious human health impacts of large scale mining and associated facilities; and to impress upon the powers that be, possible ways to avoid that harm.



Go to this website w/ information on the study & how to sign up for updates: