Some Congressmen Want to Halt Appalachian Mountaintop Coal Mining

April 10, 2019 by Tom Ramstack
Danny Fouts, 44, of Topmost, Ky., rests in his living room, with oxygen and other equipment to help him with breathing close at hand. Fouts and many of his relatives have black lung. (Silas Walker/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

WASHINGTON – Residents of Appalachian states warned about severe health and environmental consequences from renewed mountaintop coal mining during a congressional hearing Tuesday.

Lawmakers called the hearing to address concerns raised by Trump administration policies to loosen environmental restrictions on coal mining.

An occupational health expert at the hearing of the House Natural Resources subcommittee on energy and mineral resources said mountaintop mining stirs up dangerous microparticles that pollute the air.

A Kentucky mining official denied coal mining is a health hazard.

Michael McCawley, a professor from West Virginia University’s department of occupational and environmental health sciences, described a study he completed of air pollution near mountaintop mines in southern West Virginia.

“My findings clearly show that there is causal evidence to believe the air pollution levels in this region are sufficient to account for an increased prevalence of disease,” McCawley said in his testimony.

The mining produces “ultrafine particulate matter” that is largely undetectable but can lodge in people’s lungs and other tissues, he said.

“These ultramicroscopic sized particles have been found to be highly inflammatory when living cells are exposed to them,” McCawley said.

Some health officials say the particles contribute to lung disease, cancer, birth defects and early death of residents and workers.

McCawley spoke in favor of the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act. It is a bill in Congress that would require a moratorium on new permits for mountaintop mineral removal in central Appalachia.

The moratorium would continue until the federal government completes a study of health effects from mountaintop mining.

The bill was introduced by Representative John Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat, first in 2013 but again this year. He testified at the subcommittee hearing Tuesday.

He held up a bottle of a colored “liquid” that he said was supposed to be tap water taken from the well of a family home in Pike County, Kentucky.

The water was contaminated when arsenic seeped into the family’s well from blasting at nearby mines. The arsenic was 130 times higher than the level the Environmental Protection Agency classifies as safe, he said.

Mining companies sometimes use mountaintop explosions for blasting apart slopes to expose seams of coal.

“To this day, no federal health study has ever been conducted to examine the role mountaintop removal mining has on the health and wellness of nearby communities,” Yarmuth said.

The National Academy of Sciences started a study during the Obama administration but it was halted shortly after President Donald Trump took office.

Tyler White, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act could create economic hardship for miners. It could “set a staggering precedent that could affect mining nationwide,” he said.

He denied assertions that mining is a health hazard. The mining industry tests workers and communities near the mines to ensure they are safe, White said.

Residents of mining communities described dilemmas created for them by the mining.

Carl Shoupe, a disabled miner representing the advocacy group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, urged Congress to halt strip mining because of its environmental devastation.

He lives in the small town of Benham, where mines have altered the landscape.

“It’s something like a half-million acres of trees and beautiful mountaintops that they’ve destroyed,” he said. “That has to be put back.”

Donna Branham, a Lenore, W. Va., resident, discussed the limited opportunities mining offers people in her community. When mines close, “Many people lose their jobs,” she said. “It is hard and economically impossible sometimes to move your family to a different area and make a living.”

However, many residents have relied on mining for generations, making them believe the hardships are part of their lifestyles.

“They think that’s the only way of life we can have,” she said.

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