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Congress Questions Cancellation of Surface Mining Health Study

Airborne micro-particles from surface mining are believed to be linked to a variety of health problems.  (@F51C/Twenty20)
Airborne micro-particles from surface mining are believed to be linked to a variety of health problems. (@F51C/Twenty20)
February 25, 2019

FRANKFORT, Ky. – Democratic lawmakers are probing the reasons why a National Academy of Sciences study on the health effects of surface coal mining in Central Appalachia was cancelled.

The U.S. Interior Department halted the study in 2017, calling it a cost saving measure.

But Reps. Raúl Grijalva from Arizona and Alan Lowenthal from California have asked the department to turn over all documents related to the cancellation, including any conversations between Interior officials and coal companies or industry groups.

Erin Haynes, an epidemiology professor at the University of Kentucky, says it's still not clear what the health risks are for people living in communities near surface mines.

"This area has lacked, I think, scientific attention, and it's highly warranted and overdue," she states.

The House Committee on Natural Resources wants acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to release all documents and communications related to the surface mining study to the committee by March 15.

According to Haynes, even the process of restoring land after it has been mined can lead to situations that potentially can put local residents at risk.

"The reclamation process involves moving large rocks that were once underground to above ground and now, into valleys,” she explains. “All of those elements and metals and minerals are then into the water. They weren't supposed to be there. These are natural elements, but they're supposed to be underground."

Ronald Whitmore, a retired pharmacist who spent many years working in Eastern Kentucky, recalls filling prescriptions for a variety of health conditions that he believes were the result of living near mining areas.

"They always say,'Well you know, coal is the cheapest source of energy, you know – we're getting it so cheap, and why don't we burn more coal?'” he relates. “But nobody considers the huge cost to the health care system and what it does to our health."

Last summer, surface mines in Kentucky produced more than 2 million tons of coal, a nearly 15 percent decrease from 2017.

Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - KY