A clinical associate professor at the West Virginia University School of Public Health told a House subcommittee on Tuesday that his research shows mountaintop coal mining creates a health risk to both coal miners and residents who live near such mining sites.
Dr. Michael McCawley, appearing before House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, said, "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.
"There is also ample evidence in the scientific literature, that the relationship is not simply correlative but causal," McCawley said. "A true and unbiased review of the published scientific literature would, I believe, support that conclusion."
The subcommittee was hosting a panel discussion on the health and environmental impacts caused by mountaintop removal mining and considering The Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act, which would place a moratorium on the issuance of any new permits for mountain top removal in central Appalachia until the federal government could study the health impacts caused by the mining technique.
The proposed ACHE Act was first introduced to Congress by Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) in 2013.
Yarmuth was the first witness to testify at Tuesday's hearing and he began by holding up a bottle of tan colored "liquid" and explaining that the "liquid" was in fact water from the spout of the Urias family of Pike County, Kentucky.
According to Yarmuth, the Urias' had their first well dry up because of blasting from a nearby mine site along with a second well.
The water that Yarmuth held up in front of the subcommittee came from a third well dug at the Urias home which has been contaminated by nearby blast sites with arsenic levels 130 times higher than the level deemed safe by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
"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. "We got close toward the end of the Obama Administration, when a study was ordered to be conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, only to be soon halted by the Trump Administration when it was nearly halfway complete in August of 2017."
While Yarmuth said that he is personally against mountaintop removal mining and that it should be banned, he added that his proposed legislation doesn't go that far.
"My common sense legislation does not go so far as to ban this reckless practice," the congressman said. "It will simply provide families in the coal communities of my home state of Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia with the answers they are owed.
"Is it safe to breathe the air around them, drink the water beneath them, or raise the families they love where they live?"
While adamant is his belief that any type of surface mining should be halted, Yarmuth was opposed on the panel by a coal company representative who was as adamant that the practice should continue.
Tyler White, the president of the Kentucky Coal Association, told the subcommittee that passage of House Resolution 2050, the ACHE Act, would be disastrous to the economy of central Appalachia.
White pointed towards the most recent downturn of coal as an example and placed the blame for that downturn on over-regulation by the federal government.
Of chief concern to White is that the language of the proposed ACHE Act has a much wider definition of mountain top removal than current federal regulation in the form of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.
"First and foremost, the bill is an attempt to address the effects of mountain top removal mining, yet is drafted in such a way that it would apply all of its restrictions to any surface mining operation that uses blasting techniques in the steep slope regions of Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia," White said. "This would effectively delay or halt coal production throughout Appalachia and set a staggering precedent that could affect mining nationwide."
He also took exception to the proposed ACHE Act because the language does not contain a time frame and would, according to White, cause the permitting of existing mines to halt.
The coal interest representative told the subcommittee that mining practices have greatly improved and that mining companies have taken a role as environmental stewards.
"It is important to understand we live in these communities and our families live in these communities and therefore we understand that we have a great responsibility to return the environment to a quality that is equal to or better than how we found it," White said.
While White may have sung the virtues of mining companies, Donna Branham, sung a different tune.
A retired nurse, Branham has spent her entire life in Mingo County and told the subcommittee that she has seen the impact of surface mining and mountain top removal firsthand.
The Mingo native told the subcommittee about growing up in Number 27 Hollow and of her father who worked at an underground mine nearby.
Branham went on to tell the story of a mining company moving into the hollow and beginning a strip mining operation. The entire community changed, she said.
"The dust and smell from the mines were ever present," Branham said in written testimony. "While traveling the road past the mines to our home, the smell of sulfur was strong in the air, due to the slate that was dumped on either side of the road. Numerous time these dumps would catch on fire and would smolder for days.
"Anywhere you sat down had to be cleaned because of coal dust," she said. "It was even in the house and on the floor. Before you could ride in the car, the inside of the vehicle had to be dusted, even though the doors and windows were kept shut.
"When you blew your nose coal soot would be on the tissue."
Branham told the subcommittee that the condition became so bad that her parents were forced to move from their home. A year later, her mother died of lung cancer, a sickness Branham blamed on the mining activity.
"The night my mother died I held her head and she cried to go home back to 27 Hollow," Branham said. "I have never forgotten that."
As a nurse, the Mingo native told the subcommittee that she has seen health conditions in mining communities worsen and that she places blame on surface mining activity.
For McCawley, the WVU professor, the evidence to support Branham's assumption is there.
McCawley may be the only scientist who has studied air pollution caused by surface mining activity and, in particular, ultrafine particles that are less than a thousandth of the width of a human hair.
According to the public health official, the ultrafine particles blown into the air by blasting activities at surface mines are known to cause inflammation which is associated with "virtually all chronic diseases."
"The coal miners working in, and the citizens living near these mountain top mine operations have suffered the consequences of exposure to these operations for too long," McCawley said. "The introduction of the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act is a step in the right direction and I applaud the subcommittee for taking a stand on behalf of the impacted citizens of Appalachia."
The reintroduced ACHE Act, of H.R 2050, was introduced to the House on April 3. Previous versions of the bill never made it past the committee stage.
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