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By Stephen Lee
Coal industry officials are challenging the science behind an ongoing project, started by the Obama administration, to study the link between mountaintop removal mining and human health.
Namely, they say the evidence is too thin to show a definitive connection.
“Correlation does not mean causation,” Jason Bostic, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, told Bloomberg BNA. He said the scientific uncertainty points to a fundamental problem with the available research: the difficulty of separating specific causes from specific effects.
Environmental groups like EarthJustice and Appalachian Mountain Advocates disagree, saying enough is already known about mountaintop removal mining to outlaw the practice or at least more strictly regulate its impacts on air and water.
On July 11, a National Academy of Sciences panel heard evidence from researchers broadly connecting mountaintop removal mining to higher rates of heart disease, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and death. In mountaintop removal, coal seams running through the upper portion of a mountain are mined by removing all the rock or soil on top of them.
However, the researchers who presented their work also repeatedly stressed that the data are still too thin and that more study is needed. The panel’s $1 million funding was provided by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement toward the end of the Obama administration, and its report is expected in March 2019.
Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, agreed the science on human health impacts remains uncertain.
“From what we learned yesterday, it’s plain to us that there remain many unanswered questions surrounding the issue,” Popovich told Bloomberg BNA the day after the NAS meeting.
Neither Alpha Natural Resources nor its spinoff, Contura Energy, responded to Bloomberg BNA interview requests about the National Academies study. Alpha has been the primary target of mountaintop removal mining opponents.
Several other companies contacted by Bloomberg BNA did not comment on the study.
Adam Finkel, the executive director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Program on Regulation, said the precautionary principle on regulating requires that “when there is scientific uncertainty about the extent of harm or even the possibility of harm, you shouldn’t let the fact of that uncertainty delay action.”
Definitive findings can take years to gather, Finkel said, in part, because researchers have to wait for latent diseases to manifest themselves. In the meantime, enough facts already have been established to trigger tighter regulation of mountaintop removal mining, he said.
“I’m not sure we need epidemiology to know there’s something going on here,” he told Bloomberg BNA.
Mark Squillace, a law professor at the University of Colorado, agreed, telling Bloomberg BNA that the anecdotal evidence “is pretty overwhelming that people who live in these coal fields are likely to suffer ill health effects. At a minimum, we need to try to understand the causal links better.”
That view was underscored at the July 11 meeting by Bob Kincaid, president of the anti-mountaintop removal group Coal River Mountain Watch of Naoma, W.Va. Kincaid, the only member of the public who rose to speak before the panel, said people are already sick and dying throughout Appalachia because of mining.
“For us to do nothing but call for more research is unethical,” Kincaid told the committee. “I suggest you get married to that notion.”
Bostic dismissed those claims, saying the precautionary principle would also sweep up many other types of behavior.
“I’m willing to bet you all those people who got sick also have TV, cell phones, and probably eat peanut butter,” he said, listing other things that could cause illness.
Paul Locke, the chair of the panel, told Bloomberg BNA that researchers often have difficulty teasing out specific causes and specific effects.
“It’s hard to discriminate impacts,” said Locke, a public health professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Our committee won’t be able to unpack those all.”
Rather, Locke said, the group’s charter is to identify the main types of coal deposits and “assess the rigor and quality” of already published medical studies on human health effects.
Travis Knuckles, an assistant professor at the West Virginia University School of Public Health, told the panel that he and his colleagues had found that exposure to particulate matter from mountaintop removal mine sites could inhibit blood vessels’ ability to dilate, leading to cardiovascular disease.
Similarly, W. Jay Christian, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky College of Public Health, told the committee that the rates of lung cancer in Appalachia are “higher than we would expect.”
But Knuckles also said “confounding exposures,” such as how close people are to roadways and even fires and lawnmowers, could be distorting the data, and Christian said the data on lung cancer is “too meager” for firm conclusions to be drawn.
Joe Lovett, executive director of Appalachian Mountain Advocates, said the National Academies’ project is at least five years too late because far fewer mountaintop removal mines are in operation today. The Energy Information Administration says coal production using mountaintop removal fell by 62 percent from 2008 to 2015.
“They should’ve done something about it years ago, when it was a bigger problem than it is now,” Lovett said.
The panel will meet again Aug. 22-24 in Kentucky.
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