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New Congress Presses Interior on Cancellation of Strip-Mine Health Study

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According to the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee, countries with mountaintop removal mines have a more than 40 percent higher rates of birth defects. (Vivian Stockman/OVEC/Southwings)
According to the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee, countries with mountaintop removal mines have a more than 40 percent higher rates of birth defects. (Vivian Stockman/OVEC/Southwings)
February 18, 2019

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The new Democratic leadership in Congress is investigating why the Department of the Interior stopped a major study of the health impacts of mountaintop removal and other surface mines.

After researchers found much higher rates of cancer, birth defects and other health problems near surface mines, the U.S. Interior Department directed the National Academy of Sciences to run a thorough study. Interior stopped that study in 2017 after Donald Trump became president.

But West Virginia University’s Michael McCawley, assistant professor of occupational and environmental health sciences, said it's important to find out what's causing the serious health problems for people living near the strip mines.

"That seems to be an epidemic of cancer cases, as well as a number of other diseases,” McCawley said. “That's important to the people in the southern portion of West Virginia; it's important to the people of the state of West Virginia."

At the time, Interior said canceling the study was a cost-saving move. Press reports suggest it came after meetings with coal-industry lobbyists. Last week, the new chair of the House Natural Resources Committee and the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee formally requested Interior turn over all documents related to the cancellation.

Interior has said ending the study saved a little more than $500,000, after having already spent nearly as much on the study prior to its cancellation. To McCawley, the cancellation looked a lot like politics getting in the way of badly-needed scientific research.

"People say, 'Well I don't want to hear the answer to that,' or, 'I don't want to discuss this as a possibility,’” he said. “Science needs to be done in the public interest and given the opportunity to find the truth."

According to McCawley, the best existing theory is that surface mining releases micro-particles - one-thousandth the size of a human hair or smaller - into the air. He said these cause inflammation in the tissues of people who breathe or absorb them. And he said they may well be a problem far beyond the coalfields.

"I have served on the World Trade Center Study Commission and seen many of the same sets of diseases in that population that we were seeing in southern West Virginia,” he said.

More information from the House Natural Resources Committee is online here.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV