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War on Health

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House Republicans recently railed against the Obama administration for conducting a war on coal. But the real war was being waged by these very same GOP lawmakers, and it was against human health.

The Republicans charged that President Obama's reworking of a rule to strengthen protection of waterways from mountaintop strip mining contamination was an effort to kill the "dirty" coal industry, and consequently cause the loss of thousands of jobs.

To thwart Obama, the House GOP majority passed a bill to revert stream protection to a flawed, discredited, industry-friendly 2008 Bush administration rule. It is a rule that was recently thrown out of federal court for not taking endangered species fate into account.

Have no fear, the House's attempted revival of the rule is unlikely to get past the Senate and certainly not President Obama's veto pen. That is most fortunate because human health would be a casualty if the Republicans were to succeed in weakening protection that desperately needs to be strengthened. It has already been well established that mountaintop mining's dumping of toxic waste into streams providing drinking water to communities in the valleys below has elevated the incidence of serious pulmonary disease, cancer, and birth defects in the exposed populations. Aquatic species and their natural habitats have also been devastated as 1200 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried in mountaintop mining waste since 1992. And scientists say that full recovery of mining waste-contaminated streams has not been documented.

During all this misery, shed no tears for the coal industry. For example, in the last 30 years in West Virginia, the industry has increased production by 140 percent. As for being a job creator, the coal companies in the state have eliminated 40,000 jobs during that same period, mostly through automation.

What about Obama's "war on coal"? Rep. Pete DeFazio, D-Oregon, points out that there are 5,000 more coal jobs in the nation today than when Obama first took office.

Nonetheless, coal is losing ground in the energy market. It is not due to environmental regulation as Republicans assert. The reason is competition from a surplus of recoverable cheap natural gas.

Just how much of an economic bonanza is coal to the areas where it is extracted from the ground? In debate on the House floor, Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va. noted that while coal was regarded as the mainstay of the Appalachia's economy for the past 100 years, the region remains mired in poverty.

Undaunted, the industry is pressing Congress for more leeway to slice off Appalachian mountaintops to get at seams of coal just below the surface. But at what price to the health of humans and the environment on which they depend? How meaningful is a job if one is too sick to show up for work?