Interior Won’t Say What It’s Doing With Coal Health Study

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By Stephen Lee

The Trump administration isn’t sharing any details about its review of a coal mining study it halted three months ago.

Democrats and environmentalists are becoming increasingly concerned about why the Interior Department remains silent about the National Academy of Sciences study, initiated under President Barack Obama to look into the potential link between coal mining in Appalachia and the health of people living nearby.

“They’re refusing to tell us anything about the study or about the $400,000 set aside for the study that is now unaccounted for,” Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said during a congressional hearing Nov. 30. “It appears this administration is interested in burying the science on mountaintop removal mining.”

Grijalva said he is renewing a demand he made in October for answers from the Interior Department about its action on the study.

The agency had announced Aug. 21 it was temporarily stopping the study as part of its review of all grants costing more than $100,000, “largely as a result of the Department’s changing budget situation.” The agency left the door open for the study to be resumed later.

No New Information

On Dec. 4, an Interior spokesperson said the department has “no new information to share on this.”

Grijalva, in an Oct. 17 letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, asked that the department “immediately provide” information about why the study was cut short after it was well underway.

“It increasingly appears as if [Interior] ended the study because of fears that it would conclusively show that mountaintop removal coal mining is a serious threat to the health of people living in Appalachia,” he wrote.

Grijalva said during the Nov. 30 congressional hearing that he has not received answers from the agency.

William Kearney, executive director of NAS’ press office, told Bloomberg Environment that the academy has “not received any update from DOI,” and that “our study is still on hold.”

Correlation, Not Causation

The coal industry has questioned how much surface mining is to blame for poor health among the residents of nearby communities. The industry has suggested that high rates of heart problems, lung disease, cancer, and birth defects in Appalachia could be due to many factors other than strip mining.

Some researchers who presented their work to the National Academy of Sciences coal mining panel also said that not enough data has been collected to connect surface mining to human health impacts.

For example, in a July National Academy of Sciences meeting, Travis Knuckles, an assistant professor at the West Virginia University School of Public Health, testified before the panel that exposure to particulate matter from mountaintop removal mine sites could inhibit blood vessels’ ability to dilate, leading to cardiovascular disease.

But Knuckles also said “confounding exposures,” such as people’s proximity to roadways, fires, and even lawnmowers, could be distorting the data.

Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, agreed, telling Bloomberg Environment some of the studies don’t show a clear correlation because they don’t account for “obvious lifestyle influences [such] as diet, smoking, etc.”

Critics of the Trump administration, however, castigated Interior’s ongoing silence as a notable example of poor government.

“When government doesn’t respond to reasonable questions from reporters or the public, the most appropriate thing is to draw a conclusion that they’re acting in bad faith,” Daniel Schuman, policy director at the activist group Demand Progress, told Bloomberg Environment.

“If you’re asking repeated questions and they’re not even doing the courtesy of saying, ‘Yes, we hear you,’ then you have to assume nefarious activities,” he said.

Disdain for Government?

“It’s no wonder that so many Americans have disdain for the federal government,” Celeste Monforton, a former Mine Safety and Health Administration official, told Bloomberg Environment. “The Interior Department has taxpayer money for this study, and now taxpayers can’t even find out the status of it. This is what happens when politicians who rail against government are put in charge.”

Schuman theorized that the Trump White House may have decided to remain silent about the study in order to stifle press coverage.

“They’re trying to make it a non-story,” Schuman said. “If they can create no news, then they can make this disappear because the press is going to move on to something else.”

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