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Researchers hear results of industry-backed mining study

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."

Another study released Monday backed off slightly from an earlier published paper that linked mountaintop removal with decreased poverty.

Ohio State University researchers examined mining and poverty data in Appalachia to determine if the region really shows effects of the so-called "natural resource curse," a theory that the reliance on extractive industries like mining actually harms a region's long-term economic performance.

In their new paper, Ohio State's Linda Lobao and her colleagues report that the situation appears to have improved slightly.

While coal mining and mountaintop removal previously were associated with higher poverty in Appalachian communities, mining now appears to show no association at all with either higher or lower poverty. That's a contrast to U.S. coal communities outside Appalachia, where mining appears to be associated with lower poverty, the Ohio State paper said.

The ARIES event includes more than 70 presentations, but authors of only about a half of those papers agreed to submit their work for peer-review process set up by John Cranyon, a Virginia Tech staffer who is coordinating ARIES.

For example, Petty's paper was the only one of five water quality reports on Monday's agenda that had been peer-reviewed by outside scientists, according to symposium documents. Non-peer-reviewed presentations were co-authored by prominent industry consultants and lawyers.

Some officials who spoke Monday downplayed the importance of the scientific peer-review process.

"When you talk about 'science-based,' people seem to think it is entirely without bias, and that's not true," said Len Peters, a chemical engineer and secretary of Kentucky's Energy and Environment Cabinet. "We don't always agree on the science. Even peer-reviewed science is not without disagreement and debate."

Karmis, though, has defended ARIES against criticism that the industry's $15 million in funding for the project will affect the results of the research.

"Funding participants have no direct input on the development of studies or reporting of results," Karmis said.

Gene Kitts, a vice president of Alpha Natural Resources, one of the companies that helped found ARIES, said that Alpha is going to live with whatever results the funded scientists come up with.

"ARIES is not designed to be an agenda-driven research program," Kitts said. "We want the research to drive the agenda."

But Kitts also said that Alpha officials got involved with ARIES in part because they wanted to ensure that certain questions they felt were left out of previous studies were included in future research.

For example, Kitts said, Alpha did not believe previous studies accurately examined the impact of selenium pollution on Appalachian streams or whether measurements of electrical conductivity were a good indicator of mining's influence on aquatic life.

"Those are some of the questions that we asked our researchers to look at," Kitts said during Monday's symposium. "We want to make sure all the questions are asked and that all of the facts are considered in these studies."

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


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