Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining: The National Research Council Should Investigate

In 2009, Dr. Margaret Palmer of the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science brought together a distinguished group of the nation's leading researchers from diverse fields to study the ecological effects caused by mountaintop removal coal mining. In January 2010, they published a peer reviewed article in Science magazine titled "Mountaintop Mining Consequences". Among this group were several members of the National Academy of Sciences.

Here is how Dr. Palmer summarized her team's research when it was published:

The scientific evidence of the severe environmental and human impacts from mountaintop mining is strong and irrefutable. Its impacts are pervasive and long lasting and there is no evidence that any mitigation practices successfully reverse the damage it causes.

Now, another peer-reviewed article about the effects of mountaintop removal mining has been published, this time in the journal Environmental Research. This most recent research reports on the association between mountaintop mining and birth defects in counties that host or border upon mountaintop mines. In this most recent study, data were analyzed from the National Center for Health Statistics' natality files by a team of researchers led by Dr. Melissa M. Ahern of Washington State University. They concluded the following:

The prevalence ... [of] birth defects was significantly higher in mountaintop mining areas compared to non-mining areas [even after controlling for covariates]... Rates were significantly higher in mountaintop mining areas for six of seven types of defects: circulatory/respiratory, central nervous system, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, urogenital, and 'other'. There was evidence that mountaintop mining effects became more pronounced in the later years [of the study] (2000 - 2003) versus earlier years (1996 - 1999). Spatial correlation between mountaintop mining and birth defects was also present, suggesting...b irth defects in neighboring counties. Elevated birth defects rates are partly a function of socioeconomic disadvantage, but remain elevated [even] after controlling for those risks... Rates for any [birth] anomaly were approximately 235 per 10,000 live births in the mountaintop mining area versus 144 per 10,000 live births in the non-mining area.

Not long ago, when I had the privilege of serving on a committee of the National Research Council that produced the book Waste Incineration and Public Health, I was reminded of something very basic: Science is not just another opinion. Resolving the most serious ecological problems, like those instigated by mountaintop removal mining, requires adherence to sound scientific facts that are not limited by politically-driven scientific compromises. Advancing sustainable ecological policies is dependent on a respect for the facts. Dictators have a history of trying to manipulate scientific facts to suit their political self-interest. Government and business leaders in the US should resist doing so.

As we all know too well, and sadly, the legislative arena is not a place where determining the truth is the principal objective, whether defined as sound economics or honest biological assessments based on the latest life-science data.

As the movie The Last Mountain documents so well, Congress and coal-state legislatures routinely behave like wholly-owned subsidiaries of the polluting industries, and of the coal industry in particular. Indeed, the most energetic response that the U.S. Congress has offered to date regarding the studies documenting the impacts caused by mountaintop removal mining has been its effort to try to impede the US EPA's ability to regulate the damaging practice, not to limit it. Don't bet the future of Appalachia on the remote prospect that this Congress will protect it: That ain't happening.

Given the risks that mountaintop removal mining engenders, what is to be done? Congress won't help. And, of course, the governments of West Virginia and Kentucky long ago sold their souls to King Coal. Certainly the business community at large must make its voice heard. Utilities that use coal must demand that the practice of acquiring coal via mountaintop removal practices must end. However, I have been at the Wall Street table with bankers who invest in or otherwise provide financial support for mountaintop removal mining, and I can attest that even the most common sense market based initiatives to limit the practice won't come easy, much less soon enough.

More, much more needs to be done to convince businesses and legislatures, including the US Congress, that mountaintop mining must end, that it is killing people, causing birth defects, poisoning water supplies, and destroying the Appalachian miner's livelihood and the region's unique cultural heritage. As Henry Fair's photos have documented, it is wiping out some of the most biologically rich temperate forests on Earth.

To date, the research generated by university researchers and other scientists has been effectively ignored by Congress and other legislative bodies. Thus, the tragedy of mountaintop removal mining remains legal. To help break through this willful ignorance by Congress, bought and paid for by the coal industry and its allies, the National Research Council needs to intervene. Already published and peer reviewed research underscores the urgency to do so. The nation's preeminent scientific agency needs to be heard on this issue: the National Academy of Sciences and its National Research Council were not established to be ignored.

Certainly every agency with any jurisdiction whatsoever over mountaintop removal mining needs to acknowledge by their actions the published research about the effects of mountaintop removal mining, whether they involve ecological destruction or birth defects.

To help those agencies, and to help legislatures and citizens as well, the National Research Council needs to commission a study of mountaintop removal's ecological and public health effects in Appalachia.

Until such a National Research Council report is issued, the US EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Interior should implement a categorical moratorium on the issuance of new permits, regardless of a mine's size or location.