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In coal country, profits above people

It was a ruse. Just as many suspected, the Trump administration offered a bogus excuse for halting a study into the health effects of surface coal mining in Appalachia.

Budget concerns were the avowed reason for halting the study that’s long been awaited by mountain residents. They want to know if the cancer, birth defects, respiratory problems and early deaths afflicting their families and neighbors are linked to the blasting, dust, diesel exhaust and polluted air and water that are part of living near strip mines.

In an Aug. 18 letter to the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, the Office of Surface Mining said that it was halting the $1 million study as part of the Interior Department’s “agency-wide review of its grants and cooperative agreements in excess of $100,000, largely as a result of our changing budget situation.” The Trump administration has recommended substantial cuts in the next budget.

One would logically conclude from that letter that Interior had halted other studies costing more than $100,000.

But not so, reports Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia.

The Appalachian health study is the only one of eight current Interior-funded National Academies projects that has been put on even temporary hold. The other seven with $100,000-plus price tags are proceeding. Interior also is continuing to fund research into cleaning up oil spills and a review of U.S. Geological Survey laboratories.

Besides, the funding for the health study was set aside by OSM in 2016 and so can’t help solve future budget crunches. As former OSM head Joe Pizarchik told CNHI’s Washington bureau, any money saved from canceling the study would revert to the federal treasury not reduce Interior Department expenses.

Pizarchik, who ordered the health study last year, said the Trump administration’s explanation “doesn’t hold water.”

No, it doesn’t.

Reporters have tried to get the truth from the Interior Department, to no avail.

But it’s an old familiar story: Protecting coal industry profits almost always gets top priority among the government agencies that are supposed to protect the public from the effects of mining. President Donald Trump, who is filling his administration with people from the industries they’re supposed to regulate, has promised to put miners back to work by cutting regulations. It’s a dubious promise in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia where depleted coal seams are making mining unprofitable.

But, whether or not Trump can breathe new life into a declining industry, coal will still being mined and people will still be living in the mountains. They’ll be having babies, raising families, breathing the air and drinking the water. The effects of surface mining do not end when active mining stops.

People will always be living near the toxins-laced rubble unearthed by surface mining and spread in massive engineered fills across headwater streams. Millions of people downstream depend on the waters that rise in the mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia.

It’s not a forgone conclusion that the 11 highly qualified scientists who were analyzing what we know and don’t know will validate links between surface mining and health problems in people who live nearby.

If links were confirmed by this study or future studies triggered by this study, it would be incumbent on the coal industry and the government to mitigate the harm. And that might cost the industry some money. And that is why the study has been halted. Once again, coal industry profits triumph over the people who are left behind when the mining ends.

Lexington Herald-Leader