Trump Suspends Funds for Health Impact Study of Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

Posted Aug. 30, 2017

MP3 Interview with Bo Webb, former board president and current member of the group Coal River Mountain Watch, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

coal

For years, medical research in communities near mountaintop removal coal-mining sites, or MTR, has revealed higher incidences of birth defects, cancer and early mortality than in control communities. MTR blasts the tops off mountain ridges with dynamite, contaminating the air and impacting water quality. After years of grassroots organizing against MTR in southern West Virginia, the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Health requested help from the federal Office of Surface Mining to review the health studies. In the waning days of the Obama administration, the office – which is part of the Interior Department – allocated a million dollars for the review. However, on Aug. 20, the Trump administration’s Interior Department halted the study in order to review all grants over $100,000.

The organization leading the study, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, confirmed the Interior Department's order and wrote: “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.“ National environmental groups condemned the decision.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Bo Webb, a former board president and current member of the group Coal River Mountain Watch who lived in the heart of the coalfields for many years and is now a leader of the effort to pressure the government to research the health impacts of MTR. For the past several years, he has advocated congressional adoption of the ACHE Act – the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act – which would require a halt to mountaintop removal coal mining until studies can prove it is safe – something he’s confident could never be substantiated. Webb organized a protest in 2015 to push the legislation, and picks up the story from there.

BO WEBB: And then the governor the next day said, "We have to take a look at all this research that’s out there. And so the head of the West Virginia Department of Health, we met with him maybe two weeks later, and he said West Virginia didn’t have the resources – the money or the people – to really do such a review of all this research. So, he contacted the Office of Surface Mining at Interior who we had dealt with before, the head of OSM – he went to the National Academy of Sciences and brought them in to do the review. What they were doing here was a review of all of the existing research. That’s all it was; it wasn’t anything new, it was just taking a look at all the research – I think it was 27 or 28 different research papers out there; it was going to take them two years to do it and cost a million dollars, and they put together a team. They brought independent scientists and they also brought in some ex-coal people that were scientists, supposedly. But they promised to hold public hearings, and they’ve been doing that, keeping us up to date, and then when they would have testimony from a scientist, they did it in Charleston (West Virginia); they just last week did it in Kentucky.

So they were in the middle of reviewing all the research, and then Trump just put the kibosh on it and shut it down. So, now, we know that people are getting sick and dying, so the Trump administration has basically decided to ignore all of that, and regardless of what the research has said, regardless of what people living there witnessing this say, it doesn’t matter. He’s basically given the green light to the coal industry to blow the mountains up, and if you kill the residents nearby, it’s okay. That’s really the bottom line, and this review thing could cause us some problems, so let’s stop it. Let’s just don’t do it.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, Bo Webb, what do you think is the next step? Do you think you can get the funding restored?

BO WEBB: Well, that’s what I’m trying to work on now, and I’m hoping to go down to D.C. in a couple of weeks and meet with Sen. Sanders’ office. I spoke with him, but most of them are out on vacation. So I’m going to go down and talk with him and try to get some pressure applied in Congress, in the Senate, to say, "Don’t let them do that. A million bucks is a drop in the bucket, plus they’re probably 30 percent into the work already." And you know what, Melinda? I know what’s going to come out of the review: They’re going to say, Well, the review, it’s valid science, but we need more research. I kind of caution on that; we don’t need more research. We need MTR to stop, and then do all the research that you want to do.

But all indications are the air that people are breathing in those communities is toxic and contaminated. The U.S. Geological Survey identified what’s in the dust and it boils down to silica and aluminum and molybdenum, which is a metal. My point is that we have so much research already that’s indicating that MTR is causing people to get sick and it definitely appears that it’s coming from the blasting and the work on these MTR sites that stirring up the dust. And the USGS, what they did, they showed this coming from the MTR sites; they showed it in the amount of dust they were collecting. When the mines were very active, there were huge amounts of silica and aluminum and such in the air, in fine particulates, which enters your lungs. You don’t have any defense against it; they’re real small, less than 2.5 microns. They showed that when the coal mines shut down and went on vacation, those fine particulates were not present. But when they start cranking it up and start blasting, those fine particulates are there again. So we know what’s in the air, we know where it’s coming from, and we know physical lab work that it’s causing the growth of tumors in human lungs. And it’s still going on.

BETWEEN THE LINES: You have been promoting the ACHE Act, which stands for Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act, since 2012, but it hasn’t caught fire yet in Congress. Do you think the publicity surrounding the cancellation or postponement or whatever it is of this study could jump-start support for the bill?

BO WEBB: Well, it will, it will if we – and when I say "we" I’m talking about myself and the people I work with, and nonprofits all over – jump on this. If we remain silent, if the people aren’t working on it, it’ll just die, it’ll disappear and go away. We need to get to D.C., and expose this and really harp on this and get this continued and bring about more awareness and hopefully just say, "We need to stop MTR, today."

For more information, visit the website of Coal River Mountain Watch at crmw.org.

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