CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A two-year-old, $15 million coal industry project to fund research on mining's health, environmental and economic impacts is beginning to produce results. New papers have been published, conference presentations are being delivered, and a weeklong symposium is scheduled for later this month.
So far, the published studies have not disproved previous work that linked mountaintop removal to water pollution, deforestation and the risk of serious illnesses.
Company-backed reports are pointing out some potential flaws in earlier research. They also are generating questions of their own, in part because industry's role in funding the work has not been clearly disclosed.
Virginia Tech officials, who are coordinating the multi-university Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science, or ARIES, have offered conflicting statements about the purpose of the project.
On its website, ARIES says the project's purpose is "to engage in detailed studies of the environmental impacts of the mining, gas and energy sectors in Appalachia, focusing on both upstream (mining, drilling, and processing) and downstream (water, land and air) issues.
Michael Karmis, director of Virginia Tech's Center for Coal and Energy, where ARIES is headquartered, describes the project as an effort to generate good science by the best minds at universities around the region.
"We want to have a scientific debate, not a political debate," Karmis said during an August 2012 interview.
A year before that interview, when ARIES was just getting started, Karmis described the program a bit differently during an appearance at a Society of Mining Professors meeting.
According to a slide presentation from that event, Karmis introduced ARIES by first citing a variety of statistics about coal's contribution to the world's energy supply. For example, one slide, titled "What coal did today," said that coal provided more than 40 percent of the power for 300 billion emails, "enhanced energy security for dozens of nations across the globe," and "enabled the production of 2.4 million metric tons of steel.
"Yet, the coal industry, at least in the USA, is under a major attack" by the government, the media and nongovernmental organizations, Karmis continued. He cited "unreasonable regulations based on "questionable science," "false assertions" and "self-serving interests"
Using some slides borrowed from industry groups, Karmis criticized a "train wreck" of new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air-pollution regulations and called EPA water-quality guidance for strip mining an "arbitrary" standard that would not be "enforced in an equitable manner.
"The coal industry needs help," Karmis said in the September 2011 presentation.
Later, in a February 2013 interview, Karmis said he is concerned about the EPA's crackdown on mountaintop-removal mining and about the agency's rules for coal-fired power plants.
"I'm questioning the prudence of some of those regulations out there and the timing of those regulations, and I'm encouraging more research," Karmis said. "We will question science and we will question regulations if we feel they are not properly documented."
'Break through years of distrust'
John Craynon grew up in McCreary County, in Eastern Kentucky's coalfields. He knows about the close-knit communities there, and about coal's longtime importance to local economics, but also about some of the environmental damage and the boom-bust cycle of the mining business.
Craynon spent nearly 30 years in Washington, working for the U.S. Department of the Interior, most of it with the federal Office of Surface Mining. Two years ago, Craynon landed at Virginia Tech, where he's working with Karmis to direct the ARIES project, as well as doing his own research and writing about mining issues.
While working for the federal government, Craynon said, he always felt like agencies never had adequate science to properly deal with questions that citizens groups were increasingly asking about large-scale surface-coal mining. Now, he's trying to fill that gap.
"The resolution of complex issues such as mountaintop mining may require radical boldness to break through years of distrust and allow for the adoption of a more public ecology," Craynon wrote in an article published last year in the journal Resources Policy. "Through the cooperation of all parties, mountaintop coal mining may be modified so that better social, environmental and economic goals can be achieved and the interests of all affected parties can be adequately considered."
At Virginia Tech, Karmis was already growing concerned about the lack of government funding for research on mining issues. Four years earlier, Karmis had served on a National Research Council panel that produced a report detailing the need for tens of millions of dollars annually in new money for coal-related research.
Meanwhile, Karmis was hearing growing complaints from coal industry executives who serve on his Virginia Tech research center's advisory board.
Companies, such as Alpha Natural Resources, were upset about efforts by the Obama administration's EPA to try to curb mountaintop removal's impacts on water quality. Mine operators said their own studies contradicted peer-reviewed research the EPA cited as evidence of mining damage. However, agency officials were hesitant to rely on industry work produced by company consultants for use in litigation.
"From my time in government, I know how we viewed that, with a little bit of suspicion," Craynon recalled. "Really, you would look at some of these studies, and say, 'This is really compelling,' but it's hard for us as an agency to base a decision on something that doesn't have third-party acceptance."
And thus, the ARIES project was born.
Virginia Tech announced it on March 31, 2011, calling ARIES "a new initiative to address the environmental impacts of the discovery, development, production and use of energy resources in Appalachia."
The initial funding companies -- Virginia Tech calls them "industrial partners" -- included Alpha Natural Resources, International Coal Group, Massey Energy Co., TECO Coal, Patriot Coal and Norfolk Southern. Virginia Tech's news release quoted Kevin Crutchfield, CEO of Alpha.
"We believe that good scientific research on natural resources, safety, and environmental issues is a key way to sustain the viability of the industry," Crutchfield said. "Only by knowing what the facts are about the impacts of mining can elected officials then make sound policy decisions that support jobs and energy security while maintaining the health and well-being of the environment and communities of Appalachia."
Industry officials who funded ARIES were given the ability to help choose the broad research topics for the project, but are not supposed to be directly involved in the actual studies, according to Karmis and Craynon.
"This is not consulting work and this is not advocacy," Craynon said. "We're just doing research."
'Mitigating environmental impacts'
So far, three ARIES-funded papers have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
One paper, by West Virginia University foresters, looked for ways to adequately measure damage to forests from mountaintop-removal mining. It found that mountaintop removal was targeting some of the most ecologically important forest areas in the region, and proposed that regulators and industry consider doing something about that.
Another study, by WVU's Paul Ziemkiewicz, focused on toxic selenium runoff, and concluded that mine operators might be able to find ways to keep the material from leaching into waterways, where it becomes much more difficult and expensive to treat.
A third ARIES-funded paper, by researchers at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine in Virginia, examined recent studies that linked living near mountaintop-removal mining to increased risks of serious illnesses and premature death. That paper criticized existing work on the subject, complaining that it was produced mostly by WVU's Michael Hendryx or researchers working with Hendryx, and said that more studies by others were needed to confirm or disprove the findings.