Health & Science

That’s One Way to Get Clean Coal: Stop Studying It

Despite clear health and environmental risks, the Department of the Interior has halted a mountaintop coal mining study.

That's One Way to Get Clean Coal: Stop Studying It

Coal miners circa 1930. (Photo by IMLS Digital Collections and Content/ flickr CC 2.0)

We already know the Trump administration is no fan of factual studies. They’ve shuttered climate change study bureaus both at home and abroad, done away with the transparency measures that required companies to compile worker health and safety statistics (formally known as the Accurate Workplace Injury and Illness Records Restoration Act) and just did away with a study designed to research and bolster gender pay equality. You can follow these rollbacks and many more in our “While He Was Tweeting” series.

Candidate and President Trump is especially fond of mentioning coal miners — and how he’ll bring back an industry that’s been dying for decades. In fact, according to The Washington Post and Trump speech indexer, Trump mentioned coal miners in his campaign speeches no fewer that 294 times (and that’s just the campaign!). That is three times as many mentions as he gave to doctors.

Since he’s pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Accord, his insistence on the rebirth of coal has only grown. Here he is congratulating himself on the opening of a new coal mine in Pennsylvania:

But it’s not really that simple. As The Washington Post and many other venues have reported, there just aren’t that many active coal miners left in the United States. In fact, the entire coal industry employs fewer people than the restaurant chain Arby’s. And, according to the US Department of Labor Statistics, more than 76,000 miners have died of black lung since 1968, and the incidence of black lung disease is on the rise. On-the-job deaths have increased in the coal industry over the last six years — already leading to problems between unions and the US Mine and Safety Administration.

Trump’s boosterism of mining and miners leaves labor, work and safety advocates and environmentalists wondering about some recent moves by the administration. In an early rollback, the administration sidelined a new Department of Labor rule that required miners coming off a shift change to report any hazards or safety concerns to their replacements.

A more recent change came with a letter from the Department of the Interior, instructing that all work cease on a study of the environmental and health effects of mountaintop mining. “Mountaintop removal mining has been shown to cause lung cancer, heart disease and other medical problems,” said Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Natural Resources. “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.”

As CNN explains:

Scientists estimate that mountaintop removal mining, a form of surface mining, has occurred on at least 500 Appalachian mountaintops. It became popular in the late 1960s as a way of harvesting coal deposits too thin to work from a coal mine.

In this form of mining, the land is first cleared of forests and vegetation, then explosives are used to break up the first layer of rock into smaller pieces known as “spoil.”

A 2010 Government Accountability Office report, apparently the most recent available on the subject, showed that in 2008, West Virginia produced 69 million tons of coal from surface mining. Kentucky produced 51 million tons, while Virginia and Tennessee followed with 9 million and 2 million respectively.

That soil and rock mixture is supposed to be returned to the land after mining is complete, but often is placed as fill in nearby valleys, which can also block headwaters of streams. In addition, when the mined coal is cleaned, a “slurry” of toxic hard metals such as lead, arsenic, manganese, sodium and sulfate is produced that makes its way into local streams and ground wells. It’s that toxic mixture that is believed to be linked to various health problems in the local Appalachian communities.

One study linked mountaintop mining to increased lung and kidney disease rates, as well as elevated death rates in surrounding communities. Another found an increase in birth defects.

Once again, the administration laid the discontinuation of the Obama-era study at the door of fiscal retrenchment. According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, they were told to halt their work because of “an agencywide budget review.”

But the National Academies is not taking the change to heart. They plan to continue public meetings in areas affected by the practice of mountaintop mining.

Kristin Miller

Kristin Miller is a senior producer for She has worked on Now with Bill Moyers, Bill Moyers on Faith & Reason, Moyers on America and Bill Moyers Journal. She’s also been a producer for TED, Sesame Street and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.