By Lesley Clark
April 9, 2019 - Does mountaintop mining in Central Appalachia, including Eastern Kentucky, harm the people living nearby? The Trump administration scrapped a study that would have found whether that was so.
Now Democrats are moving quickly to revive that study.
Rep. John Yarmuth, the sole Democrat in the Kentucky congressional delegation, is seeking to halt all new mountaintop coal removal mining permits until federal officials investigate potential health effects.
The issue has momentum in a Democratic-led House eager to challenge Trump administration policies. House Natural Resources Committee chairman Reps. Raúl Grijalva, D-Arizona, who is anxious to counter policies he sees as harmful to the environment, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, are backing the legislation.
Yarmuth will make his case before a natural resources subcommittee hearing on Tuesday.
Yarmuth said there’s never been a federal study of the health risks of the surface mining practice which often involves blasting apart steep slopes to expose buried seams of coal. Excess soil and rock are often dropped into adjacent valleys. Critics say it poses risks to human health.
“The federal government should not be approving mining permits until it can truthfully say to local residents that their health will not be jeopardized and their lives will not be put at risk,” said Yarmuth, who has unsuccessfully pressed the issue in the past.
While it doesn’t mention coal, or oil and gas, the Green New Deal calls for meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the U.S. “through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources.” It also calls for zero-emission vehicles and manufacturing.
Rep. Andy Barr, R-Kentucky, has invited Ocasio-Cortez to tour a Kentucky coal mine to see what he calls the “real world implications” of jettisoning fossil fuel for zero-emission sources. But Ocasio-Cortez, who has accepted the invite, told McClatchy last month that she’s already worried about the health and environmental effects of mountaintop removal mining.
“It’s a complete injustice the cancer levels that a lot of these communities are confronting,” she said.
Kentucky congressman Andy Barr invited New York Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to meet miners in his state during a House Committee on Financial Services meeting on March 26, 2019. She replied that she'd be “happy” to tour a coal mine.
By House Committee on Financial Services
The push for a study comes nearly two years after the Trump administration put the brakes on a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine study that the Obama-era Interior Department had funded in 2016 with $1 million.
The study had been launched at the request of two West Virginia agencies after more than two dozen scientific papers found increased risks of birth defects, cancer and premature death among residents living near large-scale Appalachia surface coal mines. One goal of the study was to review the academic research.
The coal industry has disputed the studies. A 2012 industry-funded study by a Yale University researcher and others concluded that “coal mining is not per se the cause of increased mortality in rural Appalachia.”
The decision to end the federal study in August 2017, seven months after Trump took office, earned the administration a rebuke from the Interior Department’s inspector general , who said in June that the administration had “wasted” nearly half a million dollars by starting the project but not producing a final report.
It also found that the agency was unable to provide a reason why it ended the study. Interior told the inspector general that the study was halted “because they did not believe it would produce any new information and felt costs would exceed the benefits.”
Any legislation to change course could be stymied in the Senate where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ,a Kentucky Republican, routinely criticized the Obama administration for its clean air policies.
He and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, were among the signatories to a 2017 letter to Trump applauding his efforts to roll back Obama-era regulations, including the 2015 Clean Power Plan designed to cut planet-warming emissions from the nation’s power plants.
McConnell, who earlier this year urged the Tennessee Valley Authority to keep open a coal-fired Kentucky power plant that the utility deemed unreliable and too expensive to repair, last month forced a vote on the Green New Deal in an effort to put Democratic presidential candidates in an uncomfortable position by forcing them to take a vote on the controversial proposal.
He has not commented publicly on the mountaintop removal health study, but criticized the Obama administration when it imposed new measures designed to better protect streams from coal mining following U.S. Geological Survey findings that Appalachian streams affected by mountaintop mining have less than half as many fish species and about a third as many fish as other streams.
“If the leader comments on a House bill, I will let you know,” spokeswoman Stephanie Penn said.