Trump Administration Halts Study of Surface Mining Health Effects

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By Stephen Lee

Coal industry supporters are hailing the Trump administration’s decision to nix a study on the health effects of surface coal mining, saying it’s not necessary and likely wouldn’t have yielded reliable conclusions.

Environmentalists are pushing back firmly, however, calling the move a brazen attempt to scuttle coal research.

The Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement said Aug. 21 that it had begun an agency-wide review of all grants costing more than $100,000, “largely as a result of the Department’s changing budget situation.”

In so doing, the office shelved an ongoing National Academy of Sciences study that had been trying to determine the link between surface coal mining in central Appalachia and human health.

“The Trump Administration is dedicated to responsibly using taxpayer dollars and that includes the billions of dollars in grants that are doled out every year by the Department of the Interior,” said Heather Swift, an Interior spokeswoman, in an emailed statement. “In order to ensure the Department is using tax dollars in a way that advances the Department’s mission and fulfills the roles mandated by Congress, in April the Department began reviewing grants and cooperative partnerships that exceed $100,000. As such, the $1,000,000 funding agreement was put on hold.”

Final Meeting Called Off

The National Academy 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 was expected to be published in March 2019.

The statement came as the working group had just begun the fifth of seven meetings in Hazard, Ky. That session will continue as planned because the money for the meeting had already been spent and because many participants had already traveled to Kentucky, an Interior Department official told Bloomberg BNA.

However, a three-day meeting set for Oct. 24-26, at a location yet to be determined, has been canceled.

Mining Industry Questions Study

Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, told Bloomberg BNA that the study “may be unnecessary” because central Appalachian surface mining accounts for only 0.6 percent of total domestic coal production, according to the Energy Information Administration.

During previous meetings, several researchers told the academy panel that it’s extremely difficult to separate specific health effects from specific causes. Most recently, Jonathan Borak, an epidemiologist at Yale University, told the panel Aug. 15 that central Appalachia has high rates of ill health, but it also has low rates of high school graduation, combined with poverty and economic distress, all of which can be damaging to human health.

“Correlation does not mean causation,” Jason Bostic, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, told Bloomberg BNA in July.

Democrats, Environmentalists Push Back

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, linked the suspension of the study to President Donald Trump’s repeated efforts to support the coal industry.

Putting an end to the 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,” Grijalva said.

Bob Kincaid, president of the West Virginia mining watchdog group Coal River Mountain Watch, called the move “another disgusting assault on science by the Trump administration. ... The sham of ‘budget review’ is a ridiculous subterfuge designed to stop an inquiry the coal industry desperately fears.”

Erin Savage, a campaign coordinator at environmental group Appalachian Voices, told Bloomberg BNA that she wasn’t surprised the project was canceled, given the signals the Trump administration had been sending.

Savage also noted that most of the panel’s public meetings have already been held. The Oct. 24-26 meeting was the only one left.

“It’s a finite review with a finite budget, so it’s unfortunate that they’re freezing it this late in the process,” Savage said. “They’ve put this much work into it, so why not finish it?”

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s action takes place one day after the Trump administration disbanded a climate change advisory panel that provided input on the government’s National Climate Assessment.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bna.com

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