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White House Orders End to Risk Study on Mountaintop Coal Mining

The Trump administration on Friday ordered researchers to halt work on an independent study of the potential health risks posed by mountaintop removal coal mining in for nearby communities in Appalachia.

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Trump administration on Friday ordered researchers to halt work on an independent study of the potential health risks posed by mountaintop removal coal mining for nearby communities in Appalachia.

In an August 18 letter, the U.S. Department of the Interior asked the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to cease research that the agency had commissioned under President Barack Obama’s administration.

According to a statement released Monday by the National Academies: “The letter states that the Department has begun an agency-wide review of its grants and cooperative agreements in excess of $100,000, largely as a result of the Department’s changing budget situation.”

The National Academies said it would proceed with Kentucky meetings scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, per the letter’s guidance.

The two-year study was set to look at the potential relationship between living in close proximity to current or reclaimed mining sites in four states in Central Appalachia.

In particular, the study would examine the impacts on air, soil and water quality, as well ecologic communities, that could potentially harm human health.

The move comes as the Trump administration seeks to reduce regulations believed to hamper economic development and job creation.

During the campaign Trump had promised to bring back coal jobs, and the administration has been working to target policies that impede coal production.

In early February, Congress used the Congressional Review Act to repeal the 2016 stream protection rule, which had restricted coal companies from dumping their mountaintop removal mining waste into waterways.

According to Erin Savage, a program manager with advocacy group Appalachian Voices which seeks to end mountaintop removal, a large body of research has developed over the last decade that shows health risks associated with the practice.

"Basically there's a lot of research that indicates some really troubling ties between mountaintop removal and any number of health problems, including cancer, birth defects, lower life expectancy - things like that," Savage said in a phone interview.

Many of the studies have looked at correlation but more recent research has looked at causation, which Savage said is more disconcerting in terms of tying mountaintop mining to specific health issues.

According to Savage, the National Academies study was prompted by some two dozen studies that raised concerns about the health risks for those living near mountaintop removal mining sites, along with pressure from citizens groups and community concerns in West Virginia.

Although some research has raised concerns about increased health risks associated with mountaintop removal mining waste, it remains difficult to study.

According to a 2011 article from researcher David Holzman, each coal formation has a distinct chemistry, and the path pollutants take once in groundwater is difficult to predict.

This provides all the more reason to carry on with the National Academies study, adding to a growing body of research Savage said.

"It's not grasping at something that might not be there. It may not have all of the answers of the direct pathological pathways, but certainly it's large enough now to be a real cause for concern," she said.

If the coal industry and President Trump think coal mining is not harmful to human health, they should allow the National Academies study to proceed, according to Savage.

"This is people's health and their lives that we're talking about," she said. "And that should come before specific jobs, specific industry."

In a statement, the National Academies said it would like to continue the study after the Department of the Interior is done with its review.

“The National Academies believes this is an important study and we stand ready to resume it as soon as the Department of the Interior review is completed,” the statement said.

In a statement, Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift said, "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.

"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. As such, the $1,000,000 funding agreement was put on hold," Swift said.

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