Study Finds Toxins From Coal Strip Mines

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The U.S. Geological Survey finds that people living in the southern West Virginia coalfields live with significantly higher levels of toxins in the air and water than residents in the rest of the state.


put an item on their website criticizing the papers for failing to account for “one of the most prominent sources of birth defects” — inbreeding. Crowell & Moring later removed the memo and issued an apology, but not before Appalachian media noted the firm’s ties to the National Mining Association and coal giants like Massey Energy, now owned by Alpha Natural Resources. 

“Their first response was to say that West Virginians can’t refrain from committing incest,” said Kincaid. “That’s what we’ve come to expect from the coal industries. They absolutely refuse to deal with the reality of what they’re doing.”

“The alert highlighted six scientific factors that the [WVU] study of birth defects in mountaintop mining communities failed to adequately address,” Nicole Quigley, Crowell & Moring’s public relations director, said in a statement at the time. “We did not intend to offend, and apologize for any offense taken.”

Coal mining is not “per se an independent risk factor for increased mortality in Appalachia,” concludes Dr. Jonathan Borak, professor of epidemiology and medicine at Yale University, in a paper funded by the National Mining Association. Borak said poor health in Appalachia was caused by “a very marked cultural problem” characteristic of low-income coal-mining communities.

“Not that these people are inherently defective or stupid or anything else,” Borak said in a phone interview. “They’re just in very unsupportive environments.”

Borak said the coal mining industry “creates a culture” that contributes to a society with low income, little health insurance, less education, high unemployment, heavy smoking and obesity.

Asked why his paper was funded by the mining group rather than Yale, Borak said he would have had to undergo a “very complicated grant application process” otherwise. “Yale doesn’t pay salary to do what you want to do,” Borak said. “I had to pay the rent.”

Carol Raulston, senior vice president of communications at the National Mining Association, sees no “direct connection” between coal mining and sickness.

“People with lower incomes have poor health care. They have poor diets. They have a lot of issues that continue to cause bad health,” Raulston said. “You have very similar health outcomes in Detroit. But no one’s talking about putting a moratorium on automobile production. A lot of it is related to poverty.”

Coal cult control

Webb, the activist, said central Appalachia does suffer from a cultural problem — acquiescence to the coal industry. “West Virginia is not a democracy,” Webb said. “Everyone is beholden to, owned by, bows down to the coal industry.”

Activists have asked Congress to place a moratorium on mountaintop-removal permitting until comprehensive health studies are completed. The Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act, sponsored by 15 House members, is supported by environmental groups Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards.

Bill co-sponsor Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., originally from Harlan County, Ky., dismissed the coal industry’s attempts to invalidate the work of Hendryx and other researchers.

“I’m a microbiologist. I have a master’s degree in public health,” Slaughter said. “I don’t believe it.”

Yet Slaughter said there was “zero” chance the bill could pass in the Republican-controlled House, especially with the Appalachian representatives’ pro-industry leanings. “There’s no question that the mining interests really own the place,” Slaughter said. “I don’t see sudden reversal of that.”

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the top recipient of campaign contributions from the mining industry in both the 2010 and 2012 election cycles is Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who received $298,098 for 2010 and more than $275,000 so far for 2012. In the House, Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) is the top recipient with more than $280,000 in this election cycle so far.

Manchin and McKinley did not respond to interview requests Thursday from the Center for Public Integrity.

Sick and stuck

Asked how legislators might be convinced to halt mountaintop mining, Slaughter said that “elections matter.”

But Webb said most of his neighbors were reluctant to speak against the coal companies. “They’re told, ‘If you step up and your nephew, cousin or son works for the coal company, they’ll get fired,’ ‘’ he said. “They just ramp up the heat on the citizens, and they clam up.”

Webb, a Vietnam War veteran and sixth-generation native of West Virginia’s Coal River Valley, comes from a family of miners. When he began fighting against mountaintop removal, Webb said, he became “hated” by neighbors and cousins who thought he was threatening their jobs. He said some locals tried to run him over with a car in 2005.

“They just don’t want to believe it. They think mountains are forever and coal is forever,” Webb said. “They refuse to look at the data.”

Coal River Mountain Watch spearheaded a renewable energy campaign in 2009, proposing a wind farm as an alternative to mining on Coal River Mountain. Webb said the project showed that wind farms could bring in over $1.2 million of sustainable revenue to the valley annually. In contrast, he said, mountaintop mining would produce an estimated $32,000 a year for a maximum of 11 years, after which there would be no coal left. The project failed.

Three mountaintop removal permits have already been approved on Coal River Mountain.

“The county commissioners actually cried with tears and said, ‘The coal industry has been so good to us,’ ” Webb said. “But the coal company is going to take their jobs. They’re down to the last piece of coal. They’re going to walk out and our people are going to be left with nothing but sickness.”

Holly Clark, another supporter of the reform campaign, became concerned over coal mining’s impact on her community’s health. “I’m sitting in church listening week after week about all the cancer and tumors,” said Clark, from Fayetteville, W.Va. “I just wanted to do something.”

Other residents of Appalachia seem unlikely to push for change — unless the health risks become undeniable. Activists hope the USGS data will have that effect.

“We don’t see this as a Democratic or Republican issue. We see this as a human rights issue,” Kincaid said. “Appalachia cannot afford to wait. We’ve been sacrificed for far too long.”

Alice Su is a reporter with the Center for Public Integrity. This article is reprinted from the Center with permission.