Coal production across Appalachia could be shuttered by a push to halt all new mountaintop removal mining operations until the health effects have been investigated, the Kentucky Coal Association warned lawmakers on Tuesday.
But the cautionary note did little to slow Democrats, who held the first federal hearing on whether the surface coal mining operation contributes to an elevated risk of birth defects, cancer and premature death among residents living near large-scale Appalachia surface coal mines.
“Should we just be banning all mountaintop removal mining?” Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-California, asked of the controversial practice that often involves blasting apart steep slopes to expose buried seams of coal.
Even the witnesses, who pleaded with lawmakers for a health study, paused when they heard the idea. Donna Branham, a retired West Virginia nurse, said that any ban couldn’t happen overnight and that there would have to be economic alternatives.
Yet Carl Shoupe, a former underground miner who is already urging Kentucky to bar surface mining around two historic coal towns in Eastern Kentucky, argued that serious health effects are more likely to affect residents near mountain mining sites.
“They (mountaintop removal) just destroy our streams, our water supplies and me personally, I just don’t see where it’s benefiting the communities at all,” Shoupe said.
Tyler White, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said legislation that calls for halting new mining until a health study is conducted is too broad and could “set a staggering precedent that could affect mining nationwide.”
White rejected accusations that the mining is harmful, contending that the industry conducts “strenuous tests” to make certain workers and communities are safe.
“Legitimate efforts to improve health and safety in and around mines should be supported and applauded, but this study was a remnant of the previous administration’s spending spree to support its anti-coal bias,” White said.
Michael McCawley, a clinical associate professor in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health Sciences at West Virginia University, said his research shows “evidence to believe the air pollution levels in this region are sufficient to account for an increased prevalence of disease.”
The hearing came as Democrats now control the House and are eager to challenge the Trump administration’s environmental record. The Trump administration in 2017 scrapped an Obama-era study that would have investigated any potential health effects of mountaintop removal mining.
Lowenthal questioned McCawley as to why he believed the administration canceled the study.
“I think they believed that the study was going to come out with evidence that supported banning mountaintop mining,” McCawley said, adding that he knew because his colleagues include several members of the group that was to study the issue.
Democrats invited an Interior Department official to testify about the canceled study, but were turned down, Lowenthal said, adding that James Cason, associate deputy secretary, told the committee that the issue was settled.
“He’s flat out wrong,” Lowenthal said, arguing that Interior “has repeatedly refused to provide any information to Congress on why they canceled the study.”
The top Republican on the subcommittee, Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, said he shared concern about health risks, but said the legislation was written too broadly and said that as many as 5,100 coal-related jobs could be jeopardized.
“This legislation uses selective science to justify shutting down new and existing mines but does not weigh the perceived threats with the tangible benefits of mining,” he said. “We should be supporting the miners ...not crafting legislation to put them out of business.”