Trump administration halts research on mountaintop removal coal mining

Trump administration halts research on mountaintop removal coal mining

The Trump administration has ordered researchers to stop work on an independent evaluation of potential health effects from mountaintop removal coal mining.

The Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining (OSM) last year, under then-President Obama, had commissioned the research into the possible connections between certain health risks and living near current or former surface mining sites in Appalachia. The OSM committed $1 million to the two-year effort after West Virginia officials requested it in 2015.

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But the agency sent a letter Friday to the National Academy of Sciences, which it had contracted to do the independent review, asking it to stop its work immediately.

Interior defended the pause as a necessary step toward ensuring responsible use of taxpayer money.

“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,” Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said in a 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,” she continued, leading to the hold on the mountaintop removal research.

Trump in May proposed slashing the OSM’s budget to $129 million for fiscal 2018, a 49 percent cut from the previous year. The House Appropriations Committee voted last month to give the agency $213 million.

The Monday decision comes as the Trump administration and congressional Republicans work on multiple fronts to eliminate policies they believe hamper the production and use of coal.

Congress has repealed an Interior rule meant to protect streams from mountaintop removal mining waste, Interior has overturned a moratorium on new coal mining on federal land, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has started repealing numerous regulations meant to reduce pollution from coal use.

Environmentalists have long argued that mountaintop removal releases pollutants into water and air, causing cancer, birth defects, cardiovascular illnesses and more health concerns.

Michael Hendryx, an Indiana University health science professor, told House lawmakers in 2015 that his studies have linked mountaintop removal to increased lung cancer, heart and kidney disease, and other ailments.

The National Mining Association has repeatedly disputed such findings and funded research to try to debunk the conclusions.

Bill Price, senior Appalachia organizer at the Sierra Club, called the administration’s decision to halt the National Academy study “infuriating.”

“Trump has once again shown the people of Appalachia that we mean nothing to him,” he said in a statement.

“Everyone knows there are major health risks living near mountaintop removal coal mining sites, but communities living with daily health threats were counting on finally getting the full story from the professionals at the National Academies of Science. To take that away without warning or adequate reason is beyond heartless.”

--This report was updated at 4:44 p.m.