Donald Trump loves to paint himself as a friend to coal miners and their communities. Last August, in a rally in West Virginia, Trump praised the residents as "the hard-working people who are the absolute backbone of America" and said, "I love your grit, your spirit, and I love our coal miners."
But the actual actions of the Trump administration make clear that while Trump loves what he calls "beautiful clean coal" as an object -- and definitely loves the wealthy coal executives who profit from it -- he does not, in fact, love coal miners or their community. Trump's lax enforcement of safety regulations on the mine industry was followed by a surge in deaths from mining accidents. And even though black lung disease is surging, Trump's administration is considering a rollback of regulations meant to protect miners from it.
In August, Trump's Department of Interior, under Secretary Ryan Zinke, killed a study commissioned by the National Academies of Science that was meant to examine the health impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining on the nearby communities. This week it was revealed that, despite claims to the contrary from Zinke's department, no good reason was given for ending this critical research.
At the request of Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General looked into why, exactly, Interior had shut down the study that was meant to calculate the health consequences of mountaintop removal mines for people in Appalachia who live near them. Interior had maintained for a time, both in public and to Congress, that the study was merely "on hold" as part of a larger review of all grant programs exceeding $100,000. It was later killed in April, supposedly because it wasn't turning up new information.
But the inspector general's investigation turned up a very different story.
"Other than a general document entitled 'Secretary of the Interior’s Priorities,' Departmental officials were unable to provide specific criteria, used for their determination whether to allow or cease certain grants and cooperative agreements," the letter to Grijalva reads. The National Academies of Science had "disbanded the committee working on the health study so members could return to their regular employment," the letter concluded.
Despite public claims that this choice was about thrift, the inspector general found that nearly half of the $1 million grant had already been spent, meaning that the money "was wasted because no final product was produced."
“This administration does whatever it wants and lies to the public about it, and their attitude is that the public will just have to deal with it,” Grijalva said in a press release put out with the letter. “As long as Trump’s party is in power in Washington, more money will disappear, more lies will follow and there will be no accountability.”
“This study came about because of our work," said Vernon Haltom, the executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch, a West Virginia nonprofit that focuses on trying to limit the damage to local communities from mountaintop removal.
"After years of our work trying to raise awareness of the health impacts and trying to get some kind of acknowledgment from any government agency or official that this is an issue," he said, the Obama administration had finally gotten this particular study off the ground.
“To have it yanked away for the flimsiest of reasons is a slap in the face to those that have lost family members and friends. It’s a slap in the face to the people who died. It’s a slap in the face to the people who are sick and dying now.”
“You hear the stories of people in communities in Appalachia who have tainted drinking water and see firsthand what happens when you fill in streams," Matt Lee-Ashley, senior director of environmental strategy at the Center for American Progress, told Salon. "But the NAS study would have been hugely helpful in documenting that systematically and improving the scientific foundation for future policy-making.”
On Monday, Jimmy Tobias at Pacific Standard published a piece pointing to the likely real reason the study was put on hold. Emails obtained through a FOIA request show that Katharine MacGregor, Interior's principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, pushed hard to kill the study in the weeks before its initial suspension. She sent an email to the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, prodding its acting director to move quickly.
"MacGregor's role in the study's cancellation is noteworthy for one principal reason," Tobias writes. "In the months leading up to the cancellation, her calendar shows that she had no fewer than six meetings with the most powerful mining players in the country."
“It’s part of years of battling by the mining industry to have the federal government turn a blind eye to the impacts of mountaintop mining," Lee-Ashley said. Part of the reason Obama's administration commissioned the study in the first place, he continued, was to generate information that would help shape future regulations meant to protect the communities living near mines.
The mining industry, he added, is thinking long-term, well beyond the Trump administration. “They certainly don’t want to have a subsequent administration that wants to do something about this be able to lean on an NAS study that has a more complete picture of the impacts."
Indiana University scholar Michael Hendryx has spent the past decade doing independent research into the health effects of mountaintop removal and has found that it leads to more than 1,000 extra deaths a year in the Appalachian region, largely from causes such as lung cancer and pulmonary disease. He also found that the risk of birth defects for mothers living around mountaintop removal sites was six times higher than the risk of smoking during pregnancy.
Haltom believes Hendryx's work has been valuable but also feels that a federally-funded study through the National Academies of Science would have carried the official imprimatur of the government and been difficult for mining interests to dismiss. Still, he expressed a determination to keep going with the science they have available now.
“It’s not an issue of the birds and the butterflies and the bees and the mayflies and the salamanders," Haltom said. "Those things are important, too, but the heart and soul of our work is to save human lives."
To some in Washington or in the general public trying to make sense of this issue, he said, those death and illness statistics may be "just numbers." But "for people who live near mountaintop removal, it’s family members. It's fear of who’s going to be next."