Coal Tattoo

Joe Solomon and David Baghdadi locked together disrupting the opening plenary of the ARIES symposium. Police cleared the room. Photo via RAMPS.

It’s been more than a week since the end of the Charleston symposium that brought together researchers from the coal industry-funded ARIES project for the release of some initial studies about coal mining’s impacts on the economy, environment and public health here in Appalachia.

Readers may recall that I did a lengthy story that tried to describe the history of ARIES and outlined some of the potential conflicts of interest and questions that exist about this sort of industry-backed program. Among other things, that story reported:

Michael Karmis, director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Coal and Energy, where ARIES is headquartered, describes the project as an effort to generate good science by the best minds at universities around the region.

“We want to have a scientific debate, not a political debate,” Karmis said during an August 2012 interview.

And indeed, there was some pretty interesting stuff release at the ARIES symposium. You can read the entire proceedings volume online here if you want. I tried to cover some of the more interesting presentations in several stories (see here and here), and I also did a longer story about the attacks some ARIES researchers are mounting on previous papers that show residents living near mountaintop removal coal-mining face greater risk of serious health problems and premature death.

And it was certainly interesting to hear about how legislation pending on Congress would allow the coal industry to fund research about mountaintop removal’s impacts, but do it through a fee to cover the costs of a government examination of the issue — rather than through various universities in the region where some researchers may or may not have existing ties to coal companies with an interest in the study outcomes.

One of the most important issues here is exactly who gets to sit at the table. Who decides which questions scientists should be looking it — who gets to even suggest those questions in the first place?

That was the whole problem with the way ARIES organizers set up their symposium. To start of the event, they put together two plenary sessions that were supposed to set the stage or describe the context for the rest of the presentations. These plenary sessions weren’t made up of scientists — the speakers were pro-mining state regulators and industry officials. There was no one at the table from any citizen or environmental group who might question the underlying message from other speakers about mining already being over-regulated and EPA being an out-of-control agency. Without an alternative view, that was left hanging there as the backdrop for the whole event.

No one from ARIES has made any sort of reasonable or rational explanation for why they didn’t just invite someone from Coal River Mountain Watch, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, or the Sierra Club to join the plenary panels. Almost everyone I’ve talked to who attended the event said privately it would have made sense to be more inclusive.

Probably the most honest and telling plenary presentation came from Gene Kitts, a vice president of ARIES-funder Alpha Natural Resources.  As I reported at the time:

Gene Kitts, a vice president of Alpha Natural Resources, one of the companies that helped found ARIES, said that Alpha is going to live with whatever results the funded scientists come up with.

“ARIES is not designed to be an agenda-driven research program,” Kitts said. “We want the research to drive the agenda.”

But Kitts also said that Alpha officials got involved with ARIES in part because they wanted to ensure that certain questions they felt were left out of previous studies were included in future research.

For example, Kitts said, Alpha did not believe previous studies accurately examined the impact of selenium pollution on Appalachian streams or whether measurements of electrical conductivity were a good indicator of mining’s influence on aquatic life.

“Those are some of the questions that we asked our researchers to look at,” Kitts said during Monday’s symposium. “We want to make sure all the questions are asked and that all of the facts are considered in these studies.”

In an interview, Gene was more to the point:

We got to ask the questions.

That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with the coal industry asking questions about how their activities are researched. But if ARIES is really going to hold its work up as a honest broker of coal-mining disputes, then other people with other perspectives should get to ask some of the questions as well, shouldn’t they?

This whole point was made clear toward the end of the symposium, when one pro-industry speaker made a joke about the two Radical Action for Mountain People’s Survival protesters who briefly disrupted the event’s opening session a few days earlier. This speak suggested that the two protesters were only concerned about the environment, and didn’t care about human beings. The speaker wasn’t there for the protest, and apparently didn’t understand that RAMPS is trying to get more attention paid to potential human health impacts of mountaintop removal, among other things.

The closing speaker at the ARIES event was a guy named Peter Denton, who describes himself this way:

For thirty years, Peter Denton has explored across multiple disciplines to understand how different kinds of systems interrelate. Scholar, writer, teacher and public speaker, he encourages ways to choose a future sustainable in all of its dimensions – social, cultural, economic, environmental and spiritual.

He is an instructor in ethics and in technical communications at Red River College of Applied Arts, Science and Technology; Associate Professor of History at the Royal Military College of Canada; and an ordained minister of the United Church of Canada.

Denton explained that “sustainability” isn’t just a science or a technology problem — as many of the papers presented at the ARIES event might have led us to believe. Sustainability is also a social problem, Denton explained. And one of the toughest social problems to crack is getting everyone in the room, he noted, making reference to the RAMPS protesters and the citizen groups left off the ARIES agenda. Denton said:

We need to find ways of bringing together all of the stakeholders, especially the ones that don’t normally sit at the same table.

Of course, the event didn’t end with Denton’s suggestions … they ended with someone from the coal-friendly audience standing up and arguing with Denton, telling him he didn’t know what he was talking about.