The U.S. Department of the Interior has ordered a halt to a study on the public health risks of mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia — an area ripe with natural asbestos deposits.
A letter from the Interior Department on Monday directed the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to “cease all work” on the study, citing responsible spending of taxpayer dollars as the reason for the decision.
The $1 million National Academies study began in 2016 and was expected to take two years to complete. It aimed to evaluate health risks of a common mining technique for people living near surface coal mine sites in Central Appalachia.
National Academies, a nongovernmental institution, had assembled a 12-member expert committee to assess “new approaches to safeguard the health of residents living near these types of coal mining operations.”
Central Appalachia covers portions of Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia. The Appalachian mountain range is a hotspot for natural deposits of asbestos, a toxic mineral linked to serious respiratory conditions including asbestosis, asbestos lung cancer and mesothelioma.
“Mountaintop removal mining has been shown to cause lung cancer, heart disease, and other medical problems,” Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., the ranking Democrat on the House Committee of Natural Resources, said in a statement. “Stopping this study is a ploy to stop science in its tracks and keep the public in the dark about health risks as a favor to the mining industry, pure and simple.”
Mountaintop mining is used to extract underlying coal. The technique dates back to the 1960s as a way to harvest coal deposits too thin to remove from a coal mine.
According to a report published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, mountaintop removal has occurred on at least 500 of the Appalachian Mountains. After the land is cleared of forests and vegetation, explosives break up the first layer of rock into smaller pieces, known as “spoil.”
Mining companies often dump the rubble into surrounding valleys and streams, which can lead to pollution.
A 2002 report from the National Research Council found heavy metals, such as lead, arsenic, selenium and manganese, in local streams and ground wells in Central Appalachia. High concentrations of these metals can be toxic.
But another major cause for concern is the dust created by the mining explosions. Although asbestos is no longer mined in the U.S., naturally occurring deposits can be stirred up during mining efforts for other minerals.
Toxic asbestos fibers released into the air can be inhaled or ingested by workers or nearby residents, potentially leading to asbestos-related diseases. Symptoms of mesothelioma typically don’t arise until 20 to 50 years after a person is exposed to asbestos, meaning mining efforts decades ago could lead to cancer today.
A 2010 study published in Science Magazine linked mountaintop mining to increased lung and kidney disease rates. A separate study from researchers at Washington State University found birth defects are significantly more common in these mining areas.
The halt to the mountaintop mining study is part of an agencywide review of the Department of the Interior of its grants and cooperative agreements in excess of $100,000.
In the letter sent to the National Academies, Glenda Owens, the acting director of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, said the review is largely a result of the department’s “changing budget situation” under the Trump administration.
“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,” the administration said in a statement.
Owens agreed to let the National Academies continue with a previously scheduled public meeting this week in Kentucky, but no future plans can be made.
Democrats and officials from environmental groups were quick to express criticism over the decision to cut funding to the study.
The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition released a statement saying the budget proposals and department cuts are an “attack on science, [and] are a slap in the face to the people of Appalachia as well as poor and middle class folks nationwide.”
Bill Price, senior Appalachia organizing representative for the environmental advocacy group Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign said the decision is an injustice to the residents of the region.
“It’s infuriating that Trump would halt this study on the health effects of mountaintop removal coal mining, research that people in Appalachia have been demanding for years,” he said.
A review conducted earlier this year by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences called for more careful research to determine the precise consequences of mountaintop mining, noting it can be difficult to control variables like poverty.
“Every time some reckless industry hurts working people, this administration is there to provide political cover,” Grijalva said. “Clearly this administration and the Republican Party are trying to stop the National Academy of Sciences from uncovering exactly how harmful this practice is.”