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.