Washington, DC, July 25, 2019 — A controversial decision to pull the plug on a federal study of the socio-economic impacts of coal strip mining has no identified author, according to documents obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Nor were the reasons behind the action pinpointed, as key documents are still being withheld as “deliberative.”
In August 2017, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) ordered the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) to stop all work on a study of health risks for people living near surface mine sites in Central Appalachia pending an Interior-wide review of its grants and cooperative agreements.
In April 2018, PEER submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for explanatory documents. OSM provided some material but withheld records revealing the who and why behind the suspension of the million-dollar NAS study into the harms faced by communities from mountain-top removal coal mining in Appalachia. The study was halted mid-way after more than half the available funding had been spent.
PEER appealed to obtain the withheld documents. The Interior Office of Solicitor upheld part of PEER’s appeal, releasing answers that OSM had provided to Interior’s Office of Inspector General (IG) on the matter, revealing that –
- OSM had no complaints about the nature or timeliness of NAS work on the Cooperative Agreement funding the research. However, the NAS grant was the only one suspended;
- Despite expressing concern about saving resources, the half-million dollars in unspent funds is being held in reserve until late 2021 and cannot be used for other purposes; and
- OSM Headquarters staff “has no direct knowledge as to exactly who made the decision … to halt funding for the Cooperative Agreement.”
“It is hard to believe that top Interior officials execute anonymous orders,” stated PEER Staff Counsel Kevin Bell, who is also pursuing FOIA litigation seeking records about other Interior political interventions to curtail scientific research funding. “The only certainty is that top echelons in Interior share a severe allergy to leaving a paper trail.”
Unsurprisingly, the IG investigation into the matter proved inconclusive. Nor has the promised Interior review of its major grants ever materialized. Meanwhile, OSM “talking points” leading up to the NAS study suspension are still being withheld.
“This steadfast refusal to explain its actions suggests that Interior does not believe those actions are publicly defensible,” added Bell, pointing to a House Natural Resource Committee hearing today on political intrusion into science inside Interior. “Perhaps, the only way to get to the bottom of this reversal is to put the responsible officials under oath.”