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MTR Health Study, Moratorium Make Headway in Congress

Some health researchers have tied mountaintop-removal coal mining to much higher rates of cancer in people living nearby. (Stockman/Southwings)
Some health researchers have tied mountaintop-removal coal mining to much higher rates of cancer in people living nearby. (Stockman/Southwings)
April 12, 2019

CHARLESTON, W. Va. – A health study of mountaintop-removal mining – and a moratorium until it's finished – are getting a hearing in Congress. Opponents say this could end Appalachian surface mining, but critics of this type of mining claim it has buried 4,000 miles of streams over an area the size of Delaware.

Michael McCawley, associate professor at the West Virginia University School of Public Health, ties mountaintop-removal mining to higher rates of birth defects, cancer, and heart, lung and kidney disease.

During a U.S. House hearing on Tuesday, he said U.S. Interior Department officials stopped a major health study when it was midway through, because they knew what it would find.

"I think they believed that the study was going to come out with evidence that supported banning mountaintop mining, that they knew what the evidence was," McCawley said.

At the time, Interior cited $500,000 in cost savings, in a department with an annual budget of about $12.5 billion.

Tuesday's hearing was about the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act, which has been stalled in Congress in multiple years.

House Bill 2050 – or the ACHE Act, as it is known – would put a moratorium on mountaintop-removal mining pending the results of the health study. Democrats in Congress have sharply questioned the Interior Department's reasons for stopping the study half-done.

The department provided no answers during Tuesday's hearing. But Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., criticized the ACHE Act, telling the committee that the bill defines "mountaintop removal" too broadly.

As Gosar put it, "This will effectively halt all mining operations in Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee and Virginia, jeopardizing over 5,100 jobs in an already economically depressed region of the country."

During the hearing, ACHE Act sponsor – Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky. – described a set of complaints familiar in the coalfields: blast damage, dust and ruined wells. He held up a bottle of orange-brown liquid that he said passed for one family's tap water.

"We should be able to look them in the eye, and tell them that we're not sitting idly by as their health is jeopardized by a dangerous practice in search of nothing more than the fossil fuels of our past, and a quick profit," Yarmuth said.

The legislation's supporters acknowledge that it wouldn't pass in the Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., sets the agenda.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV