A Brief History of the Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science (ARIES)

In the early 2000s, coal mining (primarily Appalachian mountaintop mining) was being significantly challenged by “research” results, by litigation and in the court of public opinion.  Some studies claimed a direct link between coal mining and severe health impacts in the community, ranging from cancer to baby/infant disease and mortality. Others alleged that coal mining perpetuates poverty in the mining regions and communities, and that social and community fabric and character suffers irrecoverably by the coal operations in that area.
As a result of these concerns, a number of meetings and strategic sessions were held in 2009 and 2010, with participation of the major Appalachian coal producers, coal associations and essential coal infrastructure companies. It was decided an independent research program, involving the major research universities in the Appalachian Region, would be created to investigate the impacts of energy production in the region. The Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research at Virginia Tech was tasked to lead and develop the initiative to ensure transparency, independence and broad involvement. Since the initial partners were involved primarily in coal mining, that was determined to be the primary focus at the beginning of the project.
A vision statement was created and the participating companies were asked to decide on funding and level of support.  The sustainability of such an initiative required multi-year commitment and financial support, and the ARIES industrial affiliates agreed to that commitment.  Industrial Affiliate Partners committed to fund ARIES with a grant of $15 million over the first five years and a research strategy was chartered and approved. The formation of ARIES was announced on March 31, 2011. It received immediate support, including endorsement by the then governors of five Appalachian states (see here).
At its formation, the ARIES sponsoring companies were: Alpha Natural Resources, International Coal Group, Massey Energy, Natural Resource Partners, TECO Coal Corporation, Patriot Coal Corporation, Cliffs Natural Resources, Mepco, CSX Corporation and Norfolk Southern.
The researchers of ARIES represent Virginia Tech, West Virginia University, Marshall University, University of Kentucky, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, University of Pittsburgh, the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine, and Consultants in Epidemiology and Occupational Health (which includes faculty from Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins University).
Additionally, ARIES embraces a new paradigm for research:

  • Funded and supported by industry but directed solely by researchers
  • Independent research conducted at universities
  • Focus on wide dissemination of results and peer-reviewed publications
  • Realistic timeframes for research and reporting
  • Focused on developing good science

In light of the demise of the U.S. Bureau of Mines in 1996, research of this type has been sorely lacking in the United States. Since 2011, ARIES researchers have produced over 70 peer-reviewed publications, in addition to numerous presentations at conferences and public meetings. The research has involved over 75 undergraduate and graduate student researchers, as well as up to 60 faculty and research associates.

While the results of the first years of ARIES provides a start to address the scientific needs related to energy and resource production and development, support is needed to continue and expand the work. ARIES was created to address the scientific and engineering issues related to energy production in Appalachia, but the model can easily be used to address issues in other parts of the energy sector or broader mining and resource development. Since most issues and problems in these industries have scientific and engineering components, development of good science and fostering scientific-based discussions allows for communication, cooperation and collaboration with all stakeholders. Additionally, the optimum planning, operation and post-mining use of mining and energy development projects also relies on science-based approaches. Finally, government policies and regulations must be based on science-based solutions and practices not on politics or self-serving agendas.