Bury­ing science in coal coun­try

The Progress-Index - - OPINION -

One would imag­ine that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, which swept into power claim­ing to sup­port the peo­ple who live in coal coun­try, would pri­or­i­tize fed­eral spend­ing on those very peo­ple’s health. In­stead, the In­te­rior Depart­ment has halted a study on how so-called moun­tain­top-re­moval coal min­ing af­fects peo­ple who live around th­ese land­scape-strip­ping op­er­a­tions.

Os­ten­si­bly, the halt is part of a broad bud­getary review. If so, In­te­rior should restart the study quickly. It is a worth­while use of gov­ern­ment re­search money, and it should pro­ceed no mat­ter which con­stituency the pres­i­dent had promised to sup­port. Moun­tain­top-re­moval min­ing in­volves lit­er­ally blow­ing the tops off moun­tains in or­der to ex­tract coal de­posits too thin for con­ven­tional sub­sur­face min­ing.

The ex­plo­sions kick up a lot of dust. Rub­ble is filled into nearby val­leys and streams. Heavy me­tals leach into water­ways.

Sci­en­tists have warned that they are see­ing height­ened rates of lung can­cer, kid­ney dis­ease, birth de­fects and other dev­as­tat­ing ill­nesses around moun­tain­top re­moval sites.

There is also mount­ing data show­ing that moun­tain­top-re­moval min­ing se­ri­ously harms lo­cal ecosys­tems.

The cor­re­la­tions that re­searchers have drawn re­quire more care­ful study to de­ter­mine how closely they re­late to moun­tain­top re­moval, as op­posed to poverty or other fac­tors, and to rec­om­mend ways of ad­dress­ing the is­sue. West Vir­ginia of­fi­cials have asked the fed­eral gov­ern­ment for more solid in­for­ma­tion. That is why the In­te­rior Depart­ment tapped the Na­tional Acad­e­mies of Sciences, En­gi­neer­ing and Medicine to con­duct a two-year, $1 mil­lion study of th­ese and other ques­tions. A team of 12 ex­perts was to char­ac­ter­ize the moun­tain­top-re­moval process, as­sess po­ten­tial ef­fects, ex­am­ine the data, and rec­om­mend ways to mon­i­tor peo­ple’s health and to con­duct re­search for new safe­guards.

But the depart­ment told the Na­tional Acad­e­mies that it must cease its work, due to “an agen­cy­wide review of its grants and co­op­er­a­tive agree­ments in ex­cess of $100,000, largely as a re­sult of our changing bud­get sit­u­a­tion.” In re­sponse, the Na­tional Acad­e­mies in­sisted that In­te­rior was putting the brakes on “an im­por­tant study” and promised to “stand ready to re­sume it as soon as the Depart­ment of the In­te­rior review is com­pleted.”

It is not big gov­ern­ment for states to seek fed­eral ex­per­tise on mat­ters re­lat­ing to their cit­i­zens’ wel­fare. And this par­tic­u­lar study is no waste of time. There may not be as many op­er­at­ing moun­tain­top-re­moval sites as be­fore. But if the prac­tice is go­ing to be used at all, there must be science-based stan­dards.

More­over, state health of­fi­cials should know about any legacy of ill­ness and pain that may await com­mu­ni­ties around moun­tain­top-re­moval sites. The Na­tional Acad­e­mies was charged with ex­am­in­ing both ac­tive and re­claimed min­ing sites, of which there are hun­dreds.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s In­te­rior Depart­ment can bury the science — whether in hope of keep­ing th­ese dis­gust­ing op­er­a­tions in busi­ness a lit­tle longer, or in ser­vice of short­sighted bud­get cut­ting — but that will not solve any of the prob­lems that would re­main.

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