The Trump administration has halted a study of the health effects of mountaintop removal strip mining for people living near surface coal mine sites in Central Appalachia. In a letter to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which was conducting the study, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) stated that the cancellation was a “largely as a result of the Department’s changing budget situation.”
“Changing budget situation?” As former OMB Director and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said, “the budget is not just a collection of numbers, but an expression of our values and aspirations.”
What’s changed is that the Department of Interior no longer values the health of people living near coal mines and aspire not to anger the coal industry.
President Trump, who has promised to bring back coal jobs, had proposed to cut almost half of the Office of Surface Mining’s budget in FY 2018, although the House of Representatives voted to restore all but $40 million of the office’s budget. The Office “is responsible for establishing a nationwide program to protect society and the environment from the adverse effects of surface coal mining operations, under which OSMRE is charged with balancing the nation’s need for continued domestic coal production with protection of the environment.”
So much for balance.
The original goal of the study was to discover “new approaches to safeguard the health of residents living near these types of coal-mining operations.” According to Ken Ward at the Charleston Gazette, who broke the story, studies have “linked health and coal-mining data to show, among other things, that residents living near mountaintop removal mines face a greater risk of cancer, birth defects and premature death. Continuing research has tried to examine actual pollution levels near mining sites and in mining communities, to provide more answers about the potential impacts.”
Needless to say, the mining industry opposed the study and is delighted with the cancellation:
Luke Popovich, a vice president and spokesman at the National Mining Association, said Monday that the study “may be unnecessary” because mountaintop removal produces a small and shrinking share of the nation’s coal.
Popovich also said in an email that officials from the National Toxicology Program reported in July that a review of existing literature on the subject — a related, but separate project from the National Academies’ effort — said it “didn’t see any evidence justifying a health hazard.” But in making that report, officials from the National Toxicology Program cautioned that their literature review found that more research was needed on the matter.