New Study Links Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining Dust to Lung Cancer

Posted Oct. 22, 2014

MP3 Interview with Vernon Haltom, director of Coal River Mountain Watch, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


There's lots of news from southern Appalachia on the fight against mountaintop removal coal mining. On Oct. 1, federal judge Amy Jackson Berman upheld the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency – the EPA – to withdraw a previously issued mountaintop removal mining permit for Arch Coal's Spruce No. 1 mine, because the company's operations violated the Clean Water Act.

Then a report from the U.S. Geological Survey confirmed elevated levels of mountaintop removal airborne toxic dust in mining communities. The report found that the dust comes from mountaintop removal operations and not from other sources. Residents living in these areas have higher rates of several serious illnesses associated with this type of dust exposure. Also, on Oct. 9, a lab technician who is certified by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, recently admitted to falsifying reports for coal companies' water quality tests. A federal investigation is ongoing.

Despite gathering evidence about the environmental harm and danger to human health caused by mountaintop removal mining, West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection has given out 25 new mining permits over the last two years as companies attempt to work around Clean Water Act restrictions. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Vernon Haltom, director of Coal River Mountain Watch in West Virginia, who discusses some of these recent developments which bolster the case against mountaintop removal mining.

VERNON HALTOM: Last week, the U.S. Geological Survey released a new report – the first one from a U.S.government agency – identifying MTR dust in communities at elevated levels, and it's the kind of dust known to cause lung and heart problems. And just yesterday, we found out there's another new study from mostly folks at West Virginia University School of Public Health regarding MTR dust and a direct link to human lung cancer. The dots are connected so strongly. This is the first one that makes that direct connection as showing cause rather than just correlation. It's big news; it's kind of depressing because now we have this lab experiment that shows that yes, what we've been breathing does promote lung cancer, and that's unsettling.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Showing causation rather than just correlation is really important. But you had indications before about the health impacts of MTR, right?

VERNON HALTOM: That's right; we've had statistical evidence that even after accounting for factors like socio-economic status and things like that, the cancer rates, heart disease rates, birth defect rates and other things – mortality, depression – all those things are higher in MTR areas, and that's after taking into account those other factors. This is the first one that actually links the MTR dust to cancer. I consider it a landmark study, and one of the scientists, Dr. Michael Hendryx, says it's one of the most important ones so far.

What are we going to do about it? The report calls for "prudent adoption of prevention strategies and exposure control." So we're thinking what kind of prevention strategies and exposure control can we do? I mean, can we live in a bubble? Do we have to evacuate? Do we all get respirators? Or, do we fight it? Do we end it? And we have a way of doing that – the ACHE Act, the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act. ACHE Act, HR 526, is the way we see would be a good and swift end to MTR and protect human health. It would place a moratorium on new or enlarged MTR sites, unless and until the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conducts and publishes a thorough, definitive study showing that this does not harm our health. The way that it would work is the moratorium would go in place immediately. And then if the study shows there's no evidence that it harms human health, then they could go about getting permits again. In the meantime, we would have that pause, and we see it as an example of the precautionary principle: you know, you don't do something to people unless you know it's relatively safe.

BETWEEN THE LINES: There was another development recently that made a pretty big splash. A judge ruled that the EPA – the Environmental Protection Agency - could revoke a permit it previously granted to the Spruce Number 1 MTR site because the company was violating the Clean Water Act. I know the coal industry and a lot of politicians in Coal Country thought that was pretty outrageous.

VERNON HALTOM: The EPA, when they see that something is violating the law, they can withdraw a permit. There's a lot of hoopla about this particular site, and even friends of mine thought that MTR was banned, or that the EPA had ended any new MTR permits, and that's nowhere near the case. Even at Spruce #1, there's still a large portion of that that is still being mined as of this day. That particular case only protected a couple of streams. The latest court victory saying the EPA does have the right to retroactively veto an MTR permit, is important, it's significant, but it's not the end of MTR. And the EPA has shown no indication that they're going to veto any other permits.

Find more information on Coal River Mountain Watch in West Virginia at

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