Is surface mining damaging people’s health in Appalachia? Federal panel seeks input.

A panel studying the potential link between surface mining and health problems in Appalachia plans meetings in Kentucky to gather information.

The committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine will hold a town hall meeting in Hazard on Aug. 21 to gain “insights and information” from people in the area, according to a news release.

That meeting will be 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Perry County Library, 289 Black Gold Boulevard.

On Aug. 22, the committee will hold panel discussions in Lexington involving representatives of the state Department of Public Health, the Energy and Environment Cabinet, the Kentucky Geological Survey and several universities.

That event will be 12:45 to 5 p.m. at the Griffin Gate Marriott Resort on Newtown Pike.

The U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement commissioned the study, saying the research agency would examine a “growing amount of academic research that relates to possible correlations between increased health risks as a result of living near surface coal mine operations.”

That issue has been controversial.

Several studies have concluded that mountaintop mining in Central Appalachia is associated with higher rates of cancer, heart disease and other health problems among local residents.

Michael S. Hendryx, who led several studies of the issue while he was a professor at West Virginia University, said dust kicked up by surface mining, which contains rare Earth metals, is a likely source of health problems.

Research “strongly indicates that mountaintop-removal coal mining is destructive of local environments and impairs human health,” Hendryx said in an interview last year.

But a 2012 study by a Yale University researcher Jonathan Borak and others did not find that mining or mining-related pollution directly contributed to health problems in Central Appalachia.

Rather, the results pointed to “substantial economic and cultural disadvantages that adversely impact the health of many area residents,” the study said.

The coal industry supported Borak’s work, but he said during a webinar Tuesday that that didn’t influence his findings.

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