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Appalachian surface mining study focuses on health impacts on West Virginians

The National Academies of Sciences, Medicine and Engineering sent a committee to Logan, WV to begin a study on the possible effects coal mining may have on residents living in central Appalachia. (WCHS/WVAH)

The National Academies of Sciences, Medicine and Engineering sent a committee to Logan County on Tuesday to begin a study on the possible effects coal mining may have on residents living in central Appalachia.

The national scientific review follows a number of studies that raised concern about increased risk of cancer, birth defects and premature death among coalfield residents living near large-scale coal-mining operations.

Researchers are hoping to answer a list of questions about how surface mining affects air, soil, groundwater and drinking water.

Throughout the day, representatives from the West Virginia Coal Association, the Department of Environmental Protection and various environmental organizations, presented their own findings on the issue.

"We're hopeful that the study will be useful to the states, to citizens group, to the federal government, to other policy makers, to better understand the health effects of surface coal mining and where things can go from here," Associate Professor for John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health, Paul Locke said.

The study comes after former DEP Secretary, Randy Huffman and State Public Health Commissioner Dr. Rahul Gupta asked the U.S. Department of Interior for help on the issue last year.

Following the panel's presentations, people in the community got the chance to give their opinions on surface mining, in a town hall meeting. The town hall was divided between two very different views. Many who spoke said coal mining is cleaner and safer than ever before, but others said it poses huge health risks to the communities around it.

When Dustin White got up tp speak, He thanked the committee for including Logan in their study of Appalachia, but he wanted to know what took them so long.

"Spend some time in our communities and find out coal is killing us," White said.

White said his father was a coal miner, who died of cancer, 10 years after retiring, and he says he believes surface coal mining and mountain-top removal correlate with the poor health of many people in Appalachia.

"Before that most of the health impacts were related to the underground miners and just the employees, now they've taken it a step further. They're poisoning the employees, and they're poisoning the communities at the same time," White said.

Coal Advocate, Shaun Adkins disagreed, saying he doesn't think coal is to blame, and the study should look at more possibilities.

"Maybe we need to look at what we're eating. maybe it's the food, and all the gluten and the processed foods and the preservatives that go into our foods. It could be that more people smoke in this area than in other areas. I think that everything needs to be looked at," Adkins said.

Adkins said a once very dangerous job has become safer, and coal mining is cleaner than ever before.

"There are a lot of occupations out there a lot more dangerous than coal mining. The industry itself has made a lot of strides in not only mining it cleaner, more profitable but also safer," Adkins said.

White said there are other options for creating jobs in Appalachia.

"Whether it be in renewable energy or industrial hemp, something like that that can provide jobs where people aren't being sacrificed by sheep," White said.

The study is expected to take two years to complete. Right now it is in the information gathering stage as the committee makes its way throughout Appalachia.

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