Monday, April 08, 2013

Coal industry funds research on health and environmental effects of mining in Appalachia

A two-year, $15 million project to study the health, environmental and economic impacts of coal mining in Appalachia will hold a five-day symposium in Charleston, W.Va., next week for its funded researchers to present their work. For the "Environmental Considerations in Energy Production" program, click here.

The Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science at Virginia Tech is funded in large measure by the coal industry and its allies, but "the industry's role in funding the work has not been clearly disclosed" and its overseer, Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research Director Michael Karmis, has "offered conflicting statements about the purpose of the project," at least in the funding stage, Ken Ward reports for The Charleston Gazette. "Company-backed reports are pointing out some potential flaws in earlier research" cited by environmental opponents of the industry.

Initial funders of ARIES included Alpha Natural Resources, International Coal Group, TECO CoalPatriot Coal and Norfolk Southern Railway, a major Appalachian coal hauler.

"Three ARIES-funded papers have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals," Ward writes. "One looked for ways to adequately measure damage to forests from mountaintop-removal mining. Another focused on toxic selenium runoff, and concluded that mine operators might be able to find ways to keep the material from leaching into waterways." A third criticized studies that "linked living near mountaintop-removal mining to increased risks of serious illnesses and premature death," complaining that studies were produced mostly by West Virginia University's Michael Hendryx or researchers working with Hendryx, and that more studies by others were needed to confirm or disprove the findings. "So far, the published studies have not disproved previous work that linked mountaintop removal to water pollution, deforestation and the risk of serious illnesses."

The industry funders "were given the ability to help choose the broad research topics for the project, but are not supposed to be directly involved in the actual studies," Ward writes, citing Virginia Tech officials. "This is not consulting work and this is not advocacy," said John Craynon, a former U.S. Office of Surface Mining official who directs the ARIES program. Ward reports, "While working for the federal government, Craynon said, he always felt like agencies never had adequate science to properly deal with questions that citizens groups were increasingly asking about large-scale surface coal mining. Now, he's trying to fill that gap." (Read more)

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