CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Researchers from universities around the region gathered at the Charleston Marriott this week to learn about new ways to dry out coal slurry, debate whether focusing on mining is a good long-term economic strategy, and consider new research into mountaintop removal's potential links to illness and premature death.
Dozens of scientists affiliated with the Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science began delivering the first results of the coal industry-funded project during the opening of a symposium that runs through Wednesday.
Organizers, supporters and participants promoted the event, held in conjunction with a gathering of the Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration, as a chance for experts to use the best data and methods to sort out how coal affects forests, streams and local communities.
"This conference is about the need for good science," said Randy Huffman, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection. "We need as much information as possible and to use it as honestly as we can."
Huffman, along with top regulators from Kentucky and Virginia, spoke as part of two plenary sessions designed to allow "government and corporate leaders" to "share their perspectives on the importance of energy and the environment to their states and the nation."
Not on the agenda, though, were any representatives of environmental organizations or citizen groups, or some of the scientists who have produced key recent studies with findings critical of mountaintop removal.
Two protesters from the anti-mining group Radical Action for Mountain People's Survival briefly interrupted the kickoff session, when they locked themselves to each other and chanted, "Coal kills, science lies."
The protesters said they would leave if ARIES officials allowed coalfield activist Junior Walk, of Boone County, to address the conference briefly. ARIES officials refused. Charleston police arrived, and briefly cleared the room while they arrested the protesters.
"These people disrupted a meeting," said Michael Karmis, director of Virginia Tech's Center for Coal and Energy, where ARIES is headquartered. "This is not the time for anyone to be included as a speaker."
Karmis added that the protesters showed that "nobody wants to hear anything about good science."
But the protesters did not disrupt any of Monday's four sessions for presenting scientific papers. Instead, they targeted one of the two plenary sessions that featured officials from the Edison Electric Institute, Alpha Natural Resources, CONSOL Energy and American Electric Power. ARIES officials had previously said they would include citizens on those panels -- or schedule a separate session with environmental group panelists -- but eventually dropped both of those ideas.
In a statement distributed by RAMPS, Walk said that ARIES and the symposium were "just another example of the coal industry cynically trying to muddy the waters, distort the science and delay the inevitable."
One major paper released Monday, though, was aimed at designing a model to help scientists and regulators more accurately determine the impact of new mining proposals by measuring them in the context of existing stresses on water quality from previous surface mining, underground mining and community development problems such as the lack of sewage treatment.
Todd Petty, a stream ecologist from West Virginia University, said the study should not been viewed as an effort to divert attention from the water quality effects of mountaintop removal. The paper, Petty said, is simply an examination of "a bunch of potentially confounding factors" that contribute to poor water quality in the state's coalfields.
In a case study that looked at the Coal River watershed, the paper said, for example, "the greatest benefits to water quality in the future would come from managing the effects of deep mine effluents." But, the paper said, "the benefits would be overwhelmed in the absence of improved surface mine reclamation if all currently permitted surface mines were mined out."