Mountaintop removal mine on Coal Mountain in Wyoming County, West Virginia

© 2018 Human Rights Watch

The House Natural Resources Committee has a new item on its oversight agenda. On Feb. 12, it asked the Interior Department to hand over all documents relating to its decision to cancel a half-completed study examining the potential health risks of surface mining activities in central Appalachia.

The request put the spotlight back on an incident that reeks of political interference with important public health research. The committee’s demand is an important step toward figuring out what happened.

The study was a key element in the fight over mountaintop removal, a form of surface coal mining that involves removing as much as 400 vertical feet of a mountain and dumping the waste rock into nearby valleys. Individual mines can operate for more than a decade, flattening mountains and filling valleys over hundreds of acres.

They often operate up to the edge of valleys where families have lived for generations. Many of those living in these mines’ shadows long have worried that the constant blasting and other activities generate air pollution and contaminate the groundwater they drink and use for bathing and household needs.

In December, Human Rights Watch published a report highlighting the situation for several families living near Coal Mountain in Wyoming County, W.Va. They reported their water turned brown and began reeking of rotten eggs after a mountaintop mine began operating near their homes. “I’m worried about my babies, if it’s safe to bathe them,” one woman said. Her husband, who was born in the valley, is a coal miner and they have two young children.

Since 2009, public health researchers, including some from West Virginia University, have put forward hard numbers that reinforce these health concerns. Over a dozen peer-reviewed studies show significantly higher rates of cardiovascular disease, lung and other types of cancer, birth defects, and overall mortality in counties with mountaintop removal compared with Appalachian counties with other types of mining or no mining at all, even after they controlled for factors such as poverty, smoking, obesity and education. 

The coal industry responded by putting pressure on West Virginia University, publicly challenging the research, and spending $15 million to pay for alternative research that produced studies that concluded mountaintop removal had no adverse health effects. In 2016, West Virginia asked the Interior Department to fund a study that would parse through the battling studies to determine the health risks of the practice — a step that could lead to stricter regulations.

The Interior Department awarded a two-year, $1 million grant to the National Academy of Sciences, a research agency founded by Abraham Lincoln to provide “independent, objective advice” to the government. In the first year, participants in the effort, who work as volunteers and included public health scientists, engineers and other experts, scrutinized the studies, interviewed many of their authors, and held four public meetings. But on Aug. 18, 2017, just as they were entering the phase of drawing conclusions, Interior ordered a screeching halt, robbing affected communities of an important tool to understand and address potential risks to their health.

What prompted the department’s decision is what the Natural Resource Committee is trying to solve. But what we already know is alarming. First, Interior’s stated justification — that this was part of an agency-wide review of all grants over $100,000 — is dubious. It did not stop any other studies at the time (although six months later it halted an oil and gas study). Moreover, emails the department produced in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, although heavily redacted, suggest that the “review” targeted only this study.

An internal department document stated the study was canceled because “costs would exceed benefits,” although it didn’t elaborate on why. 

At the behest of Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), then the ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee and now its chair, the department’s inspector general investigated the decision and concluded that “departmental officials were unable to provide specific criteria” to determine to cancel the study.

Was the study a victim of political horse-trading? The publicly available information offers only scant clues. But the department’s withdrawal of funding without any transparent or objective process is itself a cause for alarm, given federal agencies’ considerable control over grant funding.  

“My concern is not only that science is politicized now, it’s that science will be politicized for the future,” Paul Locke, the chair of the ill-fated study, told me.

The Natural Resource Committee should keep digging until it solves the mystery of this canceled study. But it also should introduce legislation to prohibit agencies from withdrawing funding from important studies for political reasons in the future.