Halting a National Academy of Sciences Study Is Unacceptable

August 29, 2017 | 3:25 pm
Andrew Rosenberg
Former Contributor

I have been a participant in National Academy studies as a scientist, a recipient of their advice as a federal agency manager at NOAA, and involved in setting up studies as a board member. Last week was the first time that I have ever seen a study in progress halted.

On August 18, the Department of Interior halted a study under the auspices of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, Division of Earth and Life Studies, entitled, “Potential Human Health Effects of Surface Coal Mining Operations in Central Appalachia.” The study was originally requested by states in Appalachia concerned about the health of their citizens. The agreed terms of reference for the study are here.

The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, first established by President Lincoln, are the nation’s premier institutions for advising our government and our people on the state of scientific evidence concerning key issues facing the nation. Members are elected by their peers to the Academies based on their deep experience and accomplishments across a wide range of fields in science, engineering and medicine.

Academy studies are commissioned to bring together, review and evaluate the scientific evidence on critical, and often controversial issues. The panel of scientists who perform a study are drawn from the broader scientific community. Each study is overseen by one or more academy members as well as professional staff to ensure it is of the highest quality. And the first step in every study I am aware of is an open discussion of possible conflicts of interest on the study panel to ensure transparency and independence.

While reviewing its grants, the Department of Interior decided to halt the study due to the “changing budget situation”. Given that the budget for the current fiscal year is set under the continuing resolution agreed in May, and the situation hasn’t changed, that seems an odd reason to quash this important work. It is also noteworthy that one of the first rules overturned by Congress and the Trump Administration using the Congressional Review Act was the so-called Stream Protection Rule enacted under President Obama. The rule was overturned despite clear scientific evidence that disposing of mine waste in streams alters their chemical and biological characteristics. But while agencies must base rules on scientific analysis, Congress is not required to do so. Their decision was purely political at the request of the mining industry.

By halting the National Academy study, the Department seems to be saying that it is not worth even looking at possible public health impacts of surface mining operations.  A representative from an industry group, the Virginia Coal and Energy Alliance, was quoted as saying, “We feel our health problems are the result of heredity and are our poor personal habits and choices, not the industry….” He may well feel that way, but science is about evidence, not feeling.

The whole point of a National Academy study is to better understand the scientific evidence concerning critical issues such as public health impacts of a given type of activity. NAS Study reports are designed to advise policymakers as to what the science says about controversial issues. That advice is often used to make better science-based policies to protect public health and safety.

The marginal costs are small for such an in-depth review of the science. Study panel members are not compensated, and they bring enormous expertise to questions like this. Halting a study charged with identifying the direct and indirect public health impacts of surface mining implies that we don’t want to know the answer, but people’s lives and quality of life are literally at stake. Members of the Appalachian communities in Kentucky agree and say they want the results. “Science isn’t going to hurt us. What we don’t know very well could,” said Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, KY.

Scientists and community members in Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia can reach out to their members of Congress and urge them to tell Secretary Zinke to reinstate the study. But this is an issue not just for Appalachia and its residents, but for all of us. We cannot silently sit by while critical studies of public health are shelved because the answer might be inconvenient to one or more political interests. Secretary of Interior Zinke should immediately release the funds and let the study proceed.