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Physicians, scientists call for moratorium on mountaintop removal

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A group of independent physicians and scientists called the National Commission on the Health Impacts of Mountaintop Removal mining released a report April 23 on health in areas around the coal mining practice.

The report came about as a result of The Center for Health, Environment & Justice commissioning an analysis of existing peer-reviewed scientific studies of how mountaintop removal mining practices affect human health.

"The evidence shows that mountaintop removal threatens public health and the environment. It's time to act to protect rural communities," said commission member Steven B. Wing. Wing is associate professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina.

The commission is made up of five members, including one West Virginia-based researcher – Benjamin M. Stout, a professor of biology at Wheeling Jesuit University.

The report calls for a moratorium to be immediately placed on mountaintop removal mining until more health studies have been conducted. The group says it particularly concerned about the association between reproductive outcomes and mountaintop removal.

"The protection of human health needs to be a higher priority than it has been in the past," said Dr. Jerome A. Paulson, professor of pediatrics and public health at George Washington University. "A moratorium is an appropriate step until such time as those doing mountaintop removal can document that they can do it without significant harm to human health."

"MTR surface mining has been used for decades to extract coal from Central Appalachia," the report states. "This activity has resulted in substantial alterations to mountain ecosystems, including destruction of streams and sediments within mine boundaries and regional degradation of entire watersheds. MTR mining has affected a significant portion of the Central Appalachian population and raised serious questions about the health impacts on these people."

The report states that there is "sufficient documentation" linking mountaintop removal mining to adverse health effects. Until the science is clearer, the report states, "preventative action in the face of uncertainty is warranted."

Much of the review focuses on the work of West Virginia University professor Michael Hendryx. The coal industry has made several attempts to rebuke his study informally and through research.

Earlier this month, research from the Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science (ARIES), a coal-industry funded initiative based at Virginia Tech was presented. Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal, Cliffs Natural Resources, CSX, MEPCO, Natural Resource Partners, Norfolk Southern, Patriot Coal Corporation and TECO are all partners in the project, providing $15 million for studies "objectively evaluating the total effects of coal mining on receiving stream water quality and biotic functions in the affected region."

In its symposium in Charleston, several ARIES presenters challenged the Hendryx studies. Specific criticism included a reliance on self-reported health impacts. A number of the researchers warned of confusing correlation and causation in coalfield health studies.

A bill that would put that moratorium in place, the Appalachian Community Health Emergency (ACHE) Act is currently in the House and was introduced by Rep. John Yarmuth, a Democrat from Kentucky. He and Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-NY, hosted a hearing on the ACHE Act on April 23.

"I love the mountains," Yarmuth said. "It was a beautiful area; some of it still is. What is going on there is immoral and a tragedy on many, many levels."

Yarmuth, a former journalist, said he traveled the state of Kentucky and saw firsthand the effect of mountaintop removal. He said he's talked to a number of people in mountaintop removal communities who are sick at higher-than-average levels. He said teachers tell him that the students asked to draw their environment in those regions paint water orange.

Slaughter now represents New York, but was he born and raised in Kentucky.

"This is something that cries out to be done," Slaughter said. "… We will never stop trying. It's long past time."

Nanette and Paul Nelson sent a letter to the committee about the high levels of cancer in their region. She said her family lives where there is no longer anything like "fresh air."