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Possible birth defects link to MTR deserves study, Rahall says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Rep. Nick Rahall said Tuesday that a possible link between mountaintop removal and increased rates of birth defects in the Appalachian coalfields needs further investigation.

But the West Virginia Democrat said that he isn't sure what agency should do that, or whether there's much Congress could do about the problem, even if a link is proven by further research.

Rahall also defended his efforts to weaken the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's role in overseeing Clean Water Act permits for mountaintop removal operations.

"My efforts are not to stop EPA," Rahall said in an interview with the Gazette. "My efforts are to get EPA to work closer with the states. Cooperative federalism is the name of the bill that passed here last week with my co-sponsorship."

Rahall said that he hasn't read the recent study by West Virginia University researcher Michael Hendryx but has been briefed about it by his staff.

The study analyzed 1.8 million records of births between 1996 and 2003, and found "significantly higher rates" of birth defects -- affecting circulatory, respiratory, nervous, gastrointestinal and urogenital systems -- in mountaintop removal areas compared to areas with other types of mining or no mining at all.

Hendryx, Washington State University's Melissa Ahern and other scientists have published a collection of recent papers examining possible links between mountaintop removal and various illnesses.

Collectively, the papers have given weight to citizen complaints about coal's impact on public health. Anti-mountaintop removal activists point to the research to show that the issue isn't just about mining's effects on salamanders, mayflies or isolated mountain streams.

Rahall agreed that the papers are important, but said he's not sure that they provide enough proof for any regulatory action by the government.

"Certainly, any information that is proven that shows a high incidence of illness or birth defects is of serious concern, and it ought to be given serious study," Rahall said. "And before we rush headlong into new regulations, we need to find out if the current ones are working, if they're being enforced, and if not, why not."

Rahall complained that the birth defects study did not provide policymakers any recommendations for what should be done about mountaintop removal.

But the study did say, "Existing regulations to protect air and water quality in mountaintop mining areas may be inadequate, and enforcement of those regulations has been lax, although recent efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency may be moving in the direction of stricter regulations."

Last week, the House passed a Rahall-sponsored bill that he has described as a reaction to the Obama administration's crackdown on mountaintop removal through tougher permit reviews and more stringent water quality guidelines.

The bill would stop EPA from rejecting Clean Water Act "dredge-and-fill" permits approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as EPA did earlier this year with the largest mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history.

But the bill goes much farther than that. It would block EPA from stepping in if states write water quality standards federal scientists believe are too weak. EPA would no longer be able to withdraw federal approval of state water pollution regulatory programs, and would be stripped of authority to object to water pollution discharge permits issued by state agencies.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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