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Groups demand health impact reviews for MTR permits

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Citizen group lawyers are again trying to force the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to examine the growing body of science that links living near mountaintop removal operations to greater risk of serious health impacts before the agency issues new mining permits.

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and the Sierra Club this week asked a federal judge in Kentucky to vacate a new permit for Leeco Inc., arguing that the corps ignored scientific studies when it approved a Clean Water Act permit for the 870-acre operation near Vicco, Ky.

"Despite the growing body of scientific evidence that large-scale surface mining increases the risk and severity of cancer, pulmonary disease, cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions, the corps did not conduct any review of potential public health impacts of this mine," the lawyers argued in legal papers filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Louisville, Ky.

The suit over the Leeco permit is one of two actions citizen groups filed last October in a renewed effort to force regulatory agencies to examine mountaintop removal not only as an environmental issue but also as a potential threat to public health.

West Virginia University researcher Michael Hendryx and others have co-authored more than 20 studies that have found generally higher rates of health problems, and specifically rates of cancer and birth defects, among residents living near mountaintop removal operations in Appalachia.

In a previous case over an Alpha Natural Resources permit in Logan County, U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers refused to allow citizen groups to present testimony about the public-health studies on mountaintop removal.

Environmental groups have not funded Hendryx, but those groups have seized on his findings to argue that mountaintop removal isn't just an issue about mining's effects on salamanders, mayflies or isolated mountains streams.

Coal lobbyists have disputed the study findings and industry lawyers have so far kept the science out of courtroom battles over new mining permits. The National Mining Association funded one published study that disputed the WVU findings, and mining companies are backing a $15 million, multi-university effort aimed at showing the public "what the science really shows."

In the Leeco case, citizen group lawyers told U.S. District Judge Thomas B. Russell that "numerous peer-reviewed studies, appearing in highly regarded scientific journals, have linked coal mining in Appalachia -- especially large-scale surface mining -- with serious health problems.

"Those studies showed a positive correlation between the prevalence and intensity of mining and the prevalence of cancer, mortality from cancer, kidney disease, birth defects, mortality from cardiovascular and pulmonary disease, impaired function due to health problems, and health problems and mortality in general," the lawyers said.

"Although nonmining socioeconomic factors contribute to health problems in Appalachia, they cannot explain these significant health disparities," the lawyers said. "Significant correlations between health problems and mining persist even after statistical adjustment for age, smoking, alcohol consumption, obesity, poverty, education, availability of doctors and other risk factors."

Corps lawyers have not yet filed a response to the citizen groups.

During a public comment period for the Leeco "dredge-and-fill" Clean Water Act permit, citizen groups objected to the mining proposal and cited the scientific studies about mountaintop removal's health effects.

In a 65-page decision document that detailed its approval of the Leeco permit, the Corps of Engineers addressed those comments only by quoting from a company response to the citizen group comments.

Leeco, the corps said, dismissed the health studies by saying they "do not represent findings of causation, but only say that health problems 'may come from contact with streams or exposure to air toxins and dust.'"

Citizen group lawyers responded that the corps "failed to take the requisite 'hard look' at human health effects and instead based its finding of no significant impact on an incomplete analysis that ignored potential health effects."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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