No Reason to Cancel Study on Mining and Public Health

By Kate Mishkin


There’s no apparent reason why a study on the health effects of mountaintop removal was halted last year, according to the Department of the Interior’s deputy inspector general.

The study, “Potential Human Health Effects of Surface Coal Mining Operations in Central Appalachia,” would have looked at the health effects on residents who live near mountaintop removal coal-mining sites. The Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining had committed $1 million to the study but put it on hold after the office said it was reviewing grants and agreements that cost more than $100,000.

Without orders from the OSM, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which was in charge of the study, released its 11-member committee earlier this year.

“Other than a general document entitled ‘Secretary of the Interior’s Priorities,’ departmental officials were unable to provide specific criteria used for their determination whether to allow or cease certain grants and cooperative agreements,” Mary Kendall, the deputy inspector general, wrote to Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, in a letter June 7.

Grijalva asked Kendall’s office to review the decision to halt the study in January. In his letter, he asked about the mountaintop removal study, and one on the offshore oil and gas inspection program, both of which were being funded by the Department of the Interior and conducted by the National Academies and abruptly ended.

He referenced two letters to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, on Aug. 25 and Oct. 17, asking for more information about both studies and said he hadn’t received a response.

“The suspicion on my part was that it was an inconvenient truth that was going to happen here, that there was an effect,” Grijalva said by phone Wednesday.

A spokeswoman for the Department of the Interior did not respond to requests for more information Wednesday.

In her response to Grijalva, Kendall said her office had reviewed both studies.

“Department officials decided to halt the study because they did not believe it would produce any new information and felt costs would exceed the benefits,” Kendall wrote.

Officials made that decision after nearly half of the $1 million budget was already spent, she said. But the $455,110 already spent on the study was “wasted because no final product was produced,” she said. The Inspector General’s Office is separately conducting an audit of that $455,110. The remaining $548,000 will be returned to the U.S. Treasury in 2021, she wrote.

The OSM initially committed $1 million to the study in August 2016 after citizen groups and state officials put pressure on the federal government to fund research.

The committee was asked to “identify gaps in the research and consider options for additional examination to address concerns about potential health risks,” the OSM said in a news release on Aug. 3, 2016.

The study would have lasted two years and examined a series of published papers on how residents living near mountaintop removal coal-mining sites had a higher risk of cancer, premature death and other illnesses.

In Grijalva’s Oct. 17 letter to Zinke, he asked for more information about the $400,000 that was spent on the study.

“It increasingly appears as if [the] DOI ended the study because of fears that it would conclusively show that mountaintop removal coal mining is a serious threat to the health of people living in Appalachia,” he wrote.

The decision to halt the study, he said, was politically motivated. Grijalva said he visited some Appalachian regions affected by mountaintop removal and saw how important it was to not just focus on the impact to the environment, but on public health, too.

“And that was the study, and to cut it short and not want empirical, fact-based science to talk about the consequences of mountaintop removal is wrong,” he said. “It’s wrong in so many ways.”


Notes:  This article originally appeared in The Charleston Gazette.  The Highlands Voicehas addressed the issue of the effects of mountaintop removal mining on public health many times, most recently in the April, 2018, issue. For some history of the discontinued study, see that issue.