A study on the health impacts of mountaintop removal by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine has been suspended after the Department of the Interior told the group it was reviewing grants in advance of budget cuts.
The two-year project, “Potential Human Health Effects of Surface Coal Mining Operations in Central Appalachia,” began this year when an ad hoc committee of public health, mining, and earth science experts was brought together to “conduct a study to 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,” according to a project description. Total funding for the project was $1 million over two years.
It is not clear when — or if — the project will continue, according to a press release posted Monday on the National Academies’ website.
“The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement informed the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that it should cease all work on a study of the potential health risks for people living near surface coal mine sites in Central Appalachia” pending the fiscal review, the National Academies said.
The National Academies is made up of experts in their fields, elected by peers and serving on research and advisory bodies to help the country “solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions.” The group “believes this is an important study and we stand ready to resume it as soon as the Department of the Interior review is completed,” according to its press release.
The study began public meetings in March of this year. The group will still hold its scheduled meetings Monday and Tuesday in Kentucky.
Mountaintop removal is a type of coal mining that, as its name suggests, relies on cutting off the peaks of mountains to access the mineral below. In the process, it destroys the local environment, poisons waterways, and degrades air quality, according to some research. Growing evidence — which prompted this study — has suggested that there is also a significant impact to human health.
“It’s infuriating that Trump would halt this study on the health effects of mountaintop removal coal mining, research that people in Appalachia have been demanding for years,” Bill Price, an organizer in West Virginia with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said in an emailed statement.
“Trump has once again shown the people of Appalachia that we mean nothing to him,” Price continued. “From his proposed budget cuts to the Appalachian Regional Commission, to pushing to take away healthcare from thousands of Appalachian people to now stripping doctors and scientists of the ability to warn us about the health effects of mountaintop coal removal, Trump’s showing that he’s only been pretending to care about our communities.”
The Trump administration has been outspoken in its support for coal mining, even at the direct expense of the local environment. The Stream Protection Rule, a Department of Interior regulation that prohibited mining companies from dumping their waste into waterways, was revoked at the beginning of the year in one of the first pieces of legislation signed by the new president.
More recently, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry has said that the country needs to increase production of coal. But prices are down, and the industry is struggling to stay afloat. A boom in natural gas production and renewable energy sources has made coal increasingly uneconomical, even while the environmental costs become more clear.
“Everyone knows there are major health risks living near mountaintop removal coal mining sites, but communities living with daily health threats were counting on finally getting the full story from the professionals at the National Academies of Science,” Price said. “It appears that the only people Trump cares about in Appalachia are coal executives, not the people who’ve lived and worked here for generations. People here trusted him, but he is proving he didn’t deserve that trust.”
Earlier this month, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R), a coal executive and an ardent Trump supporter, said he has asked the president to start giving direct subsidies to coal users.
The Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation’s budget for 2018 was $129 million, a $111-million decrease from 2017, according a press release from the agency in May. “The budget removes regulatory barriers to responsibly develop coal on federal and tribal land in the United States, helps reduce the federal deficit, and will provide a sustainable path for coal mining while protecting people and the environment,” the agency said. However, it appears that the majority of the cuts come from eliminating a nearly $90-million program to redevelop abandoned mines. Another $13.6 million was cut from the regulation and technology budget and $7.5 million was cut from “certain programmatic functions.” It was not immediately clear where the funding for this study came from.
The Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation did not respond to an inquiry on Monday.