Call it a battle of the researchers. Scientists who have both affirmed and denied connections between mountaintop removal coal mining and serious health problems have intensified their efforts to bring public attention to their work recently. Today, a commission of scientists released an analysis of some of the recent research, and concluded that there should be a moratorium on mountaintop removal.

Over the past few years, researchers have found links between surface coal mining and maladies like asthma, COPD, birth defects and cancer. The coal industry has largely dismissed the results of those studies, arguing that the researchers are biased and the findings aren’t scientifically sound. Now, the Center for Health, Environment and Justice has formed an independent commission to review the current research and offer recommendations.

The National Commission on the Health Impacts of Mountaintop Removal Mining consists of professors of pediatrics, epidemiology and biology. Its report—released today—analyzes the studies done by Michael Hendryx of WVU and Melissa Ahern of Washington State University. It also looks at rebuttals to Ahern’s study, funded by the National Mining Association and conducted by Jonathan Borak of Yale University. The commission’s conclusion is that convincing evidence exists to link mountaintop removal to health problems, but that further research is still needed. And while that research is conducted, the commission recommends that mountaintop removal stop.

The commission also suggested further tests of the air, soil, groundwater and surface area near mountaintop removal sites, and says that coal companies should fund some of that research.

Corporations involved in MTR operations benefit financially from the coal that they extract. Therefore, they have a responsibility to fund the research on the health and environmental impacts of their process and activities. Other corporate sectors have funded independent organizations such as the Health Effects Institute (HEI), which is sponsored in part by the motor vehicle industry to conduct research on the health and environmental impacts of air pollution (HEI, 2010). Such organizations have been successful in funding high-quality, independent research that is ultimately accepted for publication in peer-reviewed journals.

The commission says that research should be funded by coal companies, but researchers should be protected from the funders by a firewall to ensure that their content isn’t influenced.

In the meantime, the coal industry has undertaken several studies to attempt to disprove Hendryx and Ahern’s research. The Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science (ARIES) is an industry-funded program at Virginia Tech. As Ken Ward reported for the Charleston Gazette, ARIES held a conference in West Virginia earlier this month to present results of its research.

ARIES researcher Susan Meacham, a dietician at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine in Blacksburg, Va., told last week’s conference at the Charleston Marriott she believes there is “inadequate evidence” to support any sort of link between mining and the kinds of chronic health conditions prevalent in Appalachia.

“I think we have a lot more work to do” before such a link can be established, Meacham said.

So far, though, the industry-funded studies have actually found higher hospitalization and mortality rates in coal-mining communities, conclusions that were similar to the results obtained by Hendryx and his partners.

Ward reported that overall, the research that was presented didn’t disprove any of the research that ties mountaintop removal to health problems in Appalachia. One researcher did find problems with a paper of Hendryx’s that relied on data from birth certificates, because the records were inaccurate. Many said their results were preliminary, and that further research was needed.

Legislation has also been introduced by Congressman John Yarmuth of Louisville and New York Representative Louise Slaughter to put a moratorium on mountaintop removal until the health effects in nearby communities are better understood.

Erica Peterson reports on energy and the environment for WFPL.