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Bill would require federal mountaintop removal health study

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- New or expanded mountaintop removal permits would be blocked until the federal government concludes the mining technique is not contributing to increased risks of cancer, birth defects and other health problems among coalfield residents, under legislation proposed in Congress this week.

The bill aims to examine more closely the findings of a series of West Virginia University studies that found residents living near mountaintop removal sites face greater health risks than those who don't.

Thirteen House members co-sponsored the bill, which they dubbed the "Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act," borrowing from the name citizen activists have given to the issue.

"The Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act will provide the families in these communities the answers and the protection they deserve," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio.

Kucinich said the bill "will stop new mountaintop removal coal mines until the science clearly demonstrates the mines will not cost these hard-working communities their health or their lives."

WVU researcher Michael Hendryx and various co-authors have published more than 20 peer-reviewed papers examining possible links between mountaintop removal and various illnesses. One study found higher cancer rates and another higher birth defect rates among residents living near mining sites, even after other potential factors were considered.

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.

Coal lobbyists have disputed the study findings and industry lawyers have so far kept the science out of courtroom battles over new mining permits. The National Mining Association funded one published study that disputed the WVU findings, and mining companies are backing a multi-university effort aimed at showing the public "what the science really shows."

The new legislation would require the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, to conduct a detailed review of mountaintop removal's potential impacts on public health.

Until that review is completed -- and unless it finds that mountaintop removal does not pose a health risk to nearby residents -- federal agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would be prohibited from issuing new mountaintop removal permits.

The legislation authorizes the U.S. Office of Surface Mining to fund the study through a fee collected from mine operators who are currently conducting mountaintop removal.

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


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