Health Risk to Miners Ignored as Trump Administration Halts Surface Mining Study

by Sokolove Law

The latest attack in the Trump administration’s war on public health was launched late last month. These shots were aimed at miners and those living in Appalachian communities, and came as a letter from the Interior Department to the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM).

This organization has been preparing to study how people living near surface coal mines in Appalachian states could have their health endangered by coal extraction. The Interior Department has been reviewing a number of grants, and informed the NASEM that they would not yet be receiving $1 Million that was supposed to support this research over 2 years. The letter further explained that the review of grants was related to the Trump administration’s goal of “responsibly using taxpayer dollars.”

NASEM advises the government on issues involving the sciences, although it’s not a sanctioned governmental institution. The organization announced it was going to continue parts of this study, despite the hold on its funding. The letter did not go unnoticed by members of Congress, however, who recognized it as another volley in the ongoing war.

Voices from Capitol Hill Call Out Trump Administration

Rep. Raul Grijalva, a (D-AZ), did not mince words in his comments. Grijalva is a member of the House Committee of Natural Resources, and saw through the stated excuses:

“Clearly this administration and the Republican Party are trying to stop the National Academy of Sciences from uncovering exactly how harmful this practice is.”

Surface mining is a technique used when coal deposits are not deep enough to be extracted through conventional mines. This practice is used in at least 500 mountain tops in the Appalachian region. The land is stripped of trees and plants, then explosives are used to pulverize the rock. When the operation is finished, the loose rock and soil is supposed to be put back on the mountain.

Often this restoration does not happen, however, and the debris is dumped in valleys where it can clog streams. Further, the operation of cleaning the coal allows dangerous substances such as lead, arsenic, manganese, and sodium to seep into groundwater and streams. These pollutants have been linked to an increased risk of lung and kidney diseases, and birth defects.

Given these dangers, it is obvious why Rep. Grijalva was pointed in his condemnation of this decision:

“Stopping this study is a ploy to stop science in its tracks and keep the public in the dark about health risks as a favor to the mining industry, pure and simple.”

But as the current administration’s attitude toward public health suggests, we can simply ignore environmental- and job-related health concerns if we don’t collect the data.

See No Science, Speak No Science, Hear No Science

This latest action is part of a larger plan launched by Trump and Republicans in Congress to end policies that decrease the use of coal. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has cut regulations that decrease pollution from burning coal, and Congress has repealed a rule that sheltered streams from waste runoff when mining coal on mountains. The Interior Department also stopped a ban on new coal mining sites on federal land. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has blatantly ignored scientific studies that show coal mining releases pollutants into air and water, and results in higher levels of heart and kidney disease and lung cancer.

Since coming into office, Trump has also overseen the disbanding of a federal advisory commission on climate change. This action caused scientists to worry about the fate of the National Climate Assessment, a federal report released every 4 years. Some fear that this year’s report will simply be a mass of data that will easily be brushed under the rug by the White House, without scientists providing the needed interpretations for the public to fully appreciate this critical information.

In an act that could easily worsen the assault on public health, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt wants to add executives from fossil fuel industry to environmental advisory boards. Under this plan, part of the “fact-finding” and information gathering for new regulations might consist of meeting with lobbying groups that ignore or dispute studies linking fossil fuels to health and environmental problems.

Asbestos-Related Illnesses Under-Diagnosed

The inhalation of coal dust that causes “black lung” and other lung-health issues is not too dissimilar – in process – to that of the inhalation of asbestos.

Asbestos is 1 health danger that has long been known, and ignored, by American corporations is the risk that asbestos exposure poses to workers, particularly those in the construction industry.

As it is with mining-related illness, in spite of the clear scientific proof that inhaling asbestos fibers causes mesothelioma, a deadly form of lung cancer, it has still not been banned in the United States. Some studies suggest that mesothelioma kills 12,000 to 15,000 Americans every year, with around 3,200 new cases diagnosed annually.

More disturbingly, a newly-released study suggests that these statistics may even be grossly underestimated. The researchers found that 58 percent of asbestos-related diseases are not diagnosed until the autopsy, since they are hard to detect through imaging scans. The typical chest radiograph has a high rate of false negatives, so thousands of people may be wrongly informed that they do not have an asbestos-related disease when they instead require treatment.

Canadians Breathing Easier

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has wisely heeded the risks posed by asbestos, which has lead to Canada’s regulations to ban all 6 types of asbestos by January of 2018. While asbestos will remain in older machinery, homes, and other buildings, this plan also created new rules under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, and increased the number regulations designed to reduce workers’ exposure to asbestos.

As part of these measures, the Canadian government will also allot money for public education programs to increase knowledge of asbestos-related diseases and other health risks. These changes reflect Trudeau’s goal to promote a healthier environment in Canada, which has been one of the largest importers and exporters of asbestos for decades.

But on this side of the border, hope for an EPA ban on asbestos does not look good under the current administration.

Behind the Asbestos Ban Curve and Losing Ground

EPA Director Pruitt has not only refused to take a strong stance on banning asbestos, he has removed provisions from Clean Air Act, which includes regulations that affect asbestos. While the EPA did ban most products containing asbestos in 1989, this act was rescinded 2 years later after it was challenged by an asbestos-related company. Thus, it’s still legal to use asbestos in the United States in goods such as clothing and vinyl floor coverings, despite the fact it has been banned in more than 50 countries.

But whether we’re discussing a ban on asbestos, studies on surface coal mining, or that fact that fossil fuel lobbying groups are now regarded as “environmental experts,” it is evident that the Trump administration will always put profits over people.

As Americans, we will have to fight for our right to a clean environment over the next 3 years. The responsibility for protecting our health will fall to concerned members of Congress, as well as to independent organizations of scientists, consumer groups, and vigilant citizens, all battling to make sure that in 3 years’ time, we’ll still have a livable country.