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Approval of W. Va. Surface Mine Renews Calls for Study of Health Effects

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A federal judge has ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers acted appropriately when it granted a permit for surface coal mining in West Virginia, and some are using the ruling to champion legislation introduced by Kentucky Congressman John Yarmuth.The lawsuit argued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers didn’t take into account several studies that found mountaintop removal mines have negative effects on human health, and contribute to problems like cancer and birth defects.But Judge John T. Copenhaver ruled the Corps didn’t act “arbitrarily or capriciously” in issuing the permit. In his opinion, he said the specific permit the Army Corps issued (a 404 permit) dealt only with the discharge of materials into waterways. Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Clean Water Act, the Corps did look at the health effects of that discharge, but the environmental groups were arguing their case based on pollution from surface mines as a whole.From the opinion: The court finds that the Corps was not unreasonable in excluding the studies as outside its scope of review for the reason that the articles do not contemplate that the health effects were caused by the type of discharges associated with this mine. The third and fourth articles show health effects associated with proximity to surface coal mines, with no stated connection to discharges in streams. The first article merely summarizes other studies and lists the probable health effects associated with coal mining in general. The second article analyzes stream ecological conditions in general and shows it correlates to detrimental health effects and coal mining intensity, but does not explicitly connect the stream conditions to coal mining discharge.Environmental groups criticized the ruling, and are using it to press for passage of legislation introduced by Kentucky Congressman John Yarmuth.For the past three years, Yarmuth has sponsored a billto impose a moratorium on mountaintop removal coal mining until its health effects are better understood.Yarmuth recently told WFPL that looking at pollution either in the air or in the water only tells half of the story, and the cumulative health effects need to be considered.“And the other half of the story, the story that I’ve heard very dramatically from people who live in proximity to mountaintop removal sites, some incredibly high cancer rates, respiratory issues, mortality rates," he said.The bill hasn’t had a hearing yet, but Yarmuth said he’s hopeful the bill can move forward this year. He said he’s gotten some interest from West Virginia Congressman David McKinley—a Republican—on the measure, and with bipartisan support the bill might have a chance.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.