Strip Mines and Health

By John McFerrin

There have been some developments of interest to those who are concerned that large strip mines might be making people sick.

The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy has long been one of many groups and individuals who have been concerned about the possibility that large strip mines were causing an increase in the rates of various diseases among people who live nearby.  The Highlands Voicehad 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,    In March, 2015, Cindy Rank did a story for The Highlands Voiceheadlined Human Health Impacts of MTR: What Will It Take?   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.

There have been starts and stops on this question both scientifically and legislatively. In 2016 the Office of Surface Mining (a part of the Department of the Interior) announced that it would fund a serious, scientific study of the question.  Under the agreement between Office of Surface Mining and the National Academy of Science, the Academy was going to independently choose a committee of 12 subject matter experts to examine a growing amount of academic research that relates to possible correlations between increased health risks as a result of living near surface coal mine operations.

By 2017 the study was going great guns, having public hearings, gathering information, etc.

Then we had an election.  Waving its dedication to “responsibly using taxpayer dollars” like a mighty sword, the new administration put the study on hold.  It remained on hold for so long that a the National Academy of Science gave up and cancelled the study

Then we had another election.  Some members of theCommittee on Natural Resources of the United States House of Representatives had been curious about what had happened to the study and why it was cancelled.  After the November, 2018, election those members were in positions where they had power to demand answers.  They requested documents from the Department of the Interior on what happened.

The efforts to find out what happened to the study are parallel to the legislative efforts.  Since 2013, Congress has had before it the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act or the ACHE Act.  The ACHE Act would require the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to conduct a study of the health effects of strip mining.  It would also place a moratorium on new mining permits “Until and unless the Secretary of Health and Human Services publishes a determination … concluding that mountaintop removal coal mining does not present any health risk to individuals in the surrounding communities.”

In April, 2019, the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held a hearing on the ACHE Act.  It included testimony from Dr. Michael McCawley, a clinical associate professor at the West Virginia University School of Public Health.  Dr. McCawley said, “My findings clearly show that there is causal evidence to believe the air pollution levels in this region are sufficient to account for an increased prevalence of disease.

“There is also ample evidence in the scientific literature, that the relationship is not simply correlative but causal,” McCawley said. “A true and unbiased review of the published scientific literature would, I believe, support that conclusion.”

The ACHE Act would have a long way to go to become law.  Even if it does pass in the House of Representatives, it would still have to pass the Senate. The bad news (or good news, depending upon whether your health or profitability depends upon the continued existence of strip mining) is that it would be unlikely to pass the Senate with its present membership and leadership.