The Trump Administration takes aim at science again -- and again the coal mining industry is cheering

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) has delivered a letter to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine asking them to pause a large study that is reviewing the human health risks associated with mountaintop removal mining.

Mountaintop removal mining, sometimes called surface mining, is a type of coal mining in which acres of land are stripped away to extract the coal right below the surface. Back in May, Miles O’Brien investigated the environmental, economic, and human health impacts of this destructive practice for the PBS NewsHour, reporting from West Virginia.

“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,” reads a statement the National Academies put out on Monday. Responding to the request, the National Academies human health study has been suspended except for meetings already scheduled for yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Although the letter indicates that the OSM will review any project receiving more than $100,000 in grant money, the only study the National Academies has been explicitly asked to suspend is the one investigating the human health impacts of mountaintop removal mining.

Molly Galvin, a spokesperson for the National Academies, confirmed that no other projects were specifically identified by the OSM. No explanation was given as to why the Department of the Interior specifically singled out the mountaintop removal mining health impact study. While the National Academies waits to hear more from the Department, Galvin said they are treating this as a routine request and are cataloging which studies have received funds from OSM.

Dr. Hendryx, left, explains how a human health study will work to subjects in West Virginia. Credit: NewsHour.

Dr. Hendryx, left, explains how a human health study will work to subjects in West Virginia. Credit: NewsHour.

“I have my doubts that it is a routine review,” says Dr. Michael Hendryx, professor of environmental and occupational health at Indiana University, who has conducted some of the most influential studies on the human health impacts of mountaintop removal mining. Hendryx also participated in our NewsHour piece. “I’m suspicious that this is an attempt to stop this work from being completed.”

“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,” reports Ken Ward Jr. for the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

“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.”

This is exactly the kind of research that could now be most at risk.

Beyond the fact that there is only one study singled out, having a $100,000 threshold for review may unfairly target human health studies than, say, an environmental study monitoring water pollution downstream from a mine. “The cost involved in doing the human health studies can often be greater because you might have to pay subjects, you have to pay people to do the data collection work, you have to pay the lab analytic work, which can be expensive,” says Hendryx.

Hendryx does not receive funding from the National Academies for his studies, but he worries about what would happen should similar action come from his largest funding source, the National Institutes of Health. Considering that science agencies across the board are expected to receive massive cuts in next year’s federal budget, smaller grant sizes can be expected to disproportionately affect human health studies.

“If that type of funding gets reduced or goes away, it would have a huge negative impact on the field, which already suffers from very tight funding levels as it is,” Hendryx says. “If there’s some sort of a cap, then the very important work will not be possible to do.”

UPDATE: The Weather Channel has also covered this story with a little more background, featuring quotes from our West Virginia mountaintop removal mining NewsHour piece you can watch above.


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Fedor Kossakovski is a production assistant for Miles O'Brien Productions.