United States Department of the Interior No Longer Wants to Know the Connection between Surface Mining and Public Health

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine has ended its study of the effects of mountaintop removal mining on public health.  The committee working on the project has been released and the project terminated.  Its mission would have been to review the evidence and determine what effect large surface mining operations have upon the health of those living nearby.  The study had been requested, and funded, the Department of the Interior.  While the Academies were eager to continue, the Department of the Interior ended all funding, making completing the study impossible.

The problem of large strip mines making people sick is not new to the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.  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, 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.”

Now the National Academies have announced that it has disbanded the study.  It had become clear that that the Office of Surface Mining of the Department of the Interior will not provide any more money.  The National Academies sought private funding without success.

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.

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/.