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Trump Stifles Science in Coal Country

The Trump administration doesn’t want us to know what’s making coal country sick.

Central to Appalachian identity and heritage, West Virginia's mountains are being destroyed by mountain top removal coal mining.

Central to Appalachian identity and heritage, West Virginia's mountains are being destroyed by mountaintop removal coal mining.

Photo Courtesy of OVEC

President Trump loves to talk about the fictitious “War on Coal,” depicting the mining industry as a victim of environmental regulations. But what the administration is not acknowledging is the adverse impacts that coal has had, and continues to have, on the people living where it is mined, coal’s War on Communities. Up until last month, the National Academy of Sciences was looking into this very issue until the Trump administration abruptly cancelled the study.

Canceling the study is “a slap in the face,” says Vernon Haltom, co-director of Coal River Mountain Watch. “It’s telling Appalachian people that their lives and health are not worth protecting.”

A long-time Earthjustice partner, Coal River Mountain Watch is located in West Virginia’s Coal River Valley. The organization has been requesting a study of this type for years.

An independent commission at the National Academy of Sciences was conducting the first comprehensive review of the science  to examine potential health risks related to surface coal mining in Central Appalachia. The research had broad backing from the state of West Virginia and several members of Congress, but that didn’t protect it from yet another political attack on science.

Mountaintop removal mining is one of the most destructive processes in the extractive industry: Peaks of mountains are literally blown to smithereens to access the coal seams within. Even as employment in the coal industry has declined, the blasting has continued.

In areas with mountaintop removal mining, jagged, gray, open dirt pits replace the once rolling, green, forested mountain landscapes.

"Pictures and videos don't give you the full effect,” Haltom describes. “You don't know it until you see it in person. It's one thing for places to be deforested or damaged, but to see places where I'd stood replaced with thin air ... it's so alien to human experience that it's difficult for people to wrap their heads around it." These mountains, this landscape, are central to Appalachian identity and heritage. 

“Studies have found links between mountaintop removal mining and birth defects.”

Statistics on the health of residents living in Appalachia where surface coal mining occurs are not a pretty picture. Mortality from chronic cardiovascular disease and cancer is significantly higher than elsewhere, and studies have found links between mountaintop removal mining and birth defects. According to Haltom, in parts of Coal River Valley, you can stand in one yard and point to six different houses where someone has been diagnosed with a brain tumor—five of whom have died.

In fact, improvement in mortality rates in Appalachian coal-mining regions lag 24 years behind that of the rest of the nation. Haltom likens it to “watching the Grim Reaper come down your street. It's weird going through Facebook and going ‘that person's dead, that person's dead, that person's dead.’"

CRMW director Vernon Haltom (right) stresses the need for a public health study in this region.
CRMW director Vernon Haltom (right) stresses the need for a public health study in this region.
Chris Jordan-Bloch/Earthjustice

Several studies have found that areas with mountaintop removal mining have high levels of air particulates. The United States Geological Survey identified elevated levels of arsenic, as well as higher pH and conductivity, in streams near places where mountaintop removal mining was occurring.

Science is one of the few bulwarks against the “alternative facts” that have run rampant in current U.S. political discourse, which is why stifling this study is so dangerous. Cancelling this research is just one more example of an anti-science trend by the Trump administration and its allies in Congress, particularly regarding coal. Earlier this year, Congress repealed the Stream Protection Rule, a regulation that would have allowed for better toxicity monitoring of waterways in areas impacted by coal mining, using the Congressional Review Act. This information was sorely needed, especially considering 73 percent of all the drinking water treatment violations in West Virginia occur in counties impacted by mountaintop removal mining. Something needs to be done to protect clean water, but powerful polluter allies are actively preventing it.

Stifling science will not protect the health of coal miners or communities in Appalachia and other coal mining regions adversely affected by destructive coal mining practices. Residents of mining country deserve good jobs, and they also deserve clean air and water.

“Health studies seem abstract until people you know start dying,” Haltom says. Suppressing important research on the public health impacts of mountaintop removal mining achieves nothing. With this attack on science, the Trump administration prevents researchers from helping vulnerable communities identify and fight what is making them sick.