CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Legislation pending in Congress would impose a fee on coal companies that engage in mountaintop removal to fund a broad government study of the practice's effects on the health of coalfield residents.
Supporters said Tuesday that this approach, contained in the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act, provides an alternative to a $15 million industry-funded project that critics worry can too easily be influenced by mining companies.
The one-time fee on mine operators would pay for research to be conducted by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in consultation with other federal agencies.
The industry funding mechanism is a little-noticed part of the legislation, which aims to block new mountaintop removal permits until further studies can prove the practice is safe.
Fayette County resident Bob Kincaid, a co-founder of a campaign promoting the bill, said the arrangement would provide a level of "independence" and eliminate concerns "that the science has somehow been bought and paid for and influenced that way."
Kincaid joined with other activists from the coalfields and Washington for Tuesday's release of a report from the Center for Health, Environment and Justice reviewing existing studies about mountaintop removal and public health. The center, founded by well-known activist Louis Gibbs, also had a group of independent scientists and physicians -- dubbed the National Commission on the Health Impacts of Mountaintop Removal Mining -- examine its review of the science.
Over the last five years, West Virginia University's Michael Hendryx and other researchers have published a series of peer-reviewed studies examining possible links between mountaintop removal and various illnesses.
The work has linked health and coal-mining data to show, among other things, that residents living near mountaintop-removal mines face a greater risk of cancer, birth defects, and premature deaths. The studies tried to account for other potential risk factors and were careful not to specifically say that mining causes the health problems. More recently, Hendryx and other researchers have been expanding their work to look at actual pollution exposure to try to pinpoint any causal relationships.