Coal Mining Health Study Is Halted by Interior Department

A mountaintop removal project in Blair, W. Va., a site that was approved by the Army Corps of Engineers, but was reevaluated by the Environmental Protection Agency. CreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The Interior Department has ordered a halt to a scientific study begun under President Obama of the public health risks of mountaintop-removal coal mining.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which was conducting the study, said in a statement Monday that they were ordered to stop work because the Interior Department is conducting an agencywide budgetary review.

Last year, West Virginia officials asked the Obama administration to look into the health effects of mountaintop mining, a technique used to extract underlying coal.

As part of the practice, which dates to the 1960s, mining companies dump the rubble into the surrounding valleys and streams, in many cases leading to extensive pollution.

The National Academies assembled a 12-member expert committee to assess “new approaches to safeguard the health of residents” living near the mines.

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Environmental groups and Democrats sharply criticized the Interior Department decision.

“Mountaintop removal mining has been shown to cause lung cancer, heart disease and other medical problems,” said Representative Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Natural Resources. “Stopping this study is a ploy to stop science in its tracks and keep the public in the dark about health risks as a favor to the mining industry, pure and simple.”


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Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, said the decision to halt the study may have been justified.

“The National Institute of Environmental and Health Sciences concluded in July that after examining available studies, it didn’t see evidence justifying a health hazard, noting that no conclusive evidence connected mountaintop mining with health effects and that studies often failed to account for extraneous health and lifestyle effects,” he said.

Researchers are still trying to get a handle on the health impacts for people living in nearby Appalachian communities, many of whom are poor and have other health problems.


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Mountaintop removal, which has occurred on at least 500 Appalachian mountains, has clogged streams and waterways with heavy metals such as selenium and manganese, which can be toxic in high concentrations. The dust kicked up by these explosions is also considered a hazard.

One 2010 review published in Science found elevated mortality rates, as well as increased incidence of lung cancer and kidney disease, in counties near mountaintop mining. A 2011 study of central Appalachia found a higher rate of birth defects in the area.

The review by the National Institute of Environmental and Health Sciences, published earlier this year, noted that it can be difficult to control for variables like poverty, and called for more careful research to determine the precise consequences of the practice.

The $1 million National Academies study had begun last year and was expected to take two years to complete. Heather Swift, with the Interior Department, said the Trump administration is conducting a review of grants and cooperative agreements that cost more than $100,000 to ensure tax dollars are used effectively.

Jake Glance, a spokesman for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, said the state was not aware of the review. He added that the state will continue to provide information to the National Academies “if and when the study resumes.”

Correction: August 21, 2017 
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated when the National Academies of Sciences released a statement to address the Interior Department’s letter to halt its study of the potential health risks of mountaintop coal mining. The statement was released on Monday, not Tuesday.