Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Interior official met repeatedly with coal-industry lobbyists before canceling study on health effects of strip mining

A top official in the Department of the Interior met repeatedly with coal-industry lobbyists shortly before canceling a study on the public health effects of surface mining, Jimmy Tobias reports for the Pacific Standard.

Katharine MacGregor
Katharine MacGregor, the principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, oversees the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. OSM hired the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine to do the study, but Interior abruptly suspended it last August, as researchers were about to hold their final public meetings on it. The meetings were held, and researchers said they expected to continue after a budget review that Interior had cited as the reason for the suspension, but then Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette-Mail revealed that the study was the only one suspended. Later, the contract was canceled and the research committee disbanded.

Tobias writes: "Emails obtained through a FOIA request show that Katharine MacGregor had a hand in ensuring the health study's cancellation. Indeed, she appears to have been keenly interested in the matter." She wrote the OSM director Aug. 17: "I thought you told me on the phone that this was postponed?" The next day, OSM suspended the work.

“This is the very essence of what we mean when we describe Appalachia as a sacrifice zone,” said Bob Kincaid, president of Coal River Mountain Watch, a group fighting mountaintop-removal mining. Bo Webb, coordinator of the Appalachian Community Health Emergency campaign, which helped prompt West Virginia officials to ask for the study, said in the same press release, "It’s clear now that canceling this study was a gift to the coal industry.."

Tobias reports that "in the months leading up to the cancellation," MacGregor's calendar "shows that she had no fewer than six meetings with the most powerful mining players in the country. In both April and May of 2017, she met with the National Mining Association. In March and June, meanwhile, she met with Arch Coal, a long-time practitioner of mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia."

The evidence is circumstantial, but Tobias sees a broader trend in MacGregor's calendars: At the same time she held a mere handful of meetings—fewer than 10, according to my tally—with conservation organizations like The Wilderness Society and Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters." The calendar sshow that she "appears to have a habit of meeting repeatedly with industries and organizations that later receive favorable treatment from agencies she helps oversee," Tobias writes. An Interior spokesperson told him MacGregor is "happy to make time to meet with whomever requests a meeting," including conservation groups. "We have always welcomed input from all citizens and will continue to listen to ideas and concerns from anyone interested in sharing them."

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