Coal Tattoo

Weighing coal’s costs and benefits


Sunday’s Gazette-Mail includes a story I did on the latest study by West Virginia University researcher Michael Hendryx,  who has over the last couple of years been doing fascinating and important work about coal’s impacts on Appalachia.

As I explained in the story, this latest study:

…Questions the idea that coal is good for West Virginia and other Appalachian communities, and recommends that political leaders consider other alternatives for improving the region’s economy and quality of life.

hendryxpic1.jpgHendryx and his co-author, Melissa Ahern of Washington State University in Spokane, compared age-adjusted mortality rates and socioeconomic conditions across Appalachian counties with varying amounts of coal mining, and with other counties in the nation. They converted the mortality figures to something called the Value of Statistical Life (VSL) estimates, and then compared that to accepted numbers for the economic benefits of the coal industry to our region.

The result?

The coal industry generates a little more than $8 billion a year in economic benefits for the Appalachian region. But, they put the value of premature deaths attributable to the mining industry across the Appalachian coalfields at — by a most conservative estimate — $42 billion.

The authors conclude:

The human cost of the Appalachian coal mining economy outweighs its economic benefits.

And, they recommend:

In response to this and other research showing the disadvantages of poor economic diversification, it seems prudent to examine how more diverse employment opportunities for the region could be developed as a means to reduce socio-economic and environmental disparities and thereby improve public health.

Potential alternative employment opportunities include development of renewable energy from wind, solar, biofuels, geothermal, or hydropower sources; sustainable timber; small-scale agriculture; outdoor or culturally oriented tourism; technology; and ecosystem restoration.

The need to develop alternative economies becomes even more important when we realize that coal reserves throughout most of Appalachia are projected to peak and then enter permanent decline in about 20 years.

The study, “Mortality is Appalachian Coal Mining Regions: The Value of Statistical Life Lost,” is published in the July-August issue of Public Health Reports, the peer-reviewed journal of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Public Health Service.  The journal is available here,  but it is subscription only, and I apologize to Coal Tattoo readers that I have not been able to secure permission to post it on the blog or on the Gazette’s Web site. I expect WVU to be promoting this study’s publication with a news release, and perhaps they’ll find a way to post the actual study online for free.

Updated: I’ve gotten permission to post the entire paper, so here it is.

Hendryx and Ahern have published a series of other related articles over the last two years, some of which are summarized here.  One study in particular that received a lot of attention last year found that residents of coal-mining communities were more likely to suffer a variety of chronic health problems, even when the data was adjusted for other factors. Here’s a story I did that described that study and other work by these researchers.

My buddy Scott Finn at West Virginia Public Broadcasting did a nice piece last year on Hendryx’s research for the great show Living on Earth.

The National Mining Association, the West Virginia Coal Association, and coalfield politicians love to throw around numbers about coal-mining economic impacts.  And the folks at Marshall University’s Center for Business and Economic Research have over the years produced several studies promoting how great coal is for the regional economy (see here and here).

But the work by Hendryx is a more sophisticated (and difficult) analysis, which tries to do what a lot of political conservatives and folks in the coal industry say needs to be done: Weigh coal’s costs and benefits against each other when considering government policies that would impact the industry.

Oddly, this research hasn’t been cited much by Friends of Coal, like West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin. After Hendryx published one of his papers last year, I asked the Manchin administration if they planned to look into the issue, and this is the response I got:

Gov. Joe Manchin plans no immediate state review of coal pollution’s impacts on public health following the release of four studies that raise questions about the industry’s effects.

Manchin asked two state agencies to look at the studies, but any serious follow-up investigation should be left to the federal government, state officials said.

“If what they are saying about coal, if you follow that assessment, that’s not just a West Virginia issue,” said Lara Ramsburg, Manchin’s communications director.

Interesting, given that these days, the Manchin administration’s position is that federal officials ought to keep their noses out of West Virginia’s coal industry.

As I pointed in my story, this new study is not a definitive cost-benefit analysis of coal. As the authors explained:

“They do not consider reduced employment productivity resulting from medical illness, increased public expenditures for programs such as food stamps and Medicaid, reduced poverty values associated with mining activities, and the pros and the costs of natural resource destruction,” the study says.

Natural resources such as forests and streams have substantial economic value when they are left intact, and mining is highly destructive of these resources,” the study says. “For example, Appalachian coal mining permanently buried 724 stream miles between 1985 and 2001 through mountaintop removal mining and subsequent valley fills, and will ultimately impact more than 1.4 million acres.

Coal generates inexpensive electricity, but not as inexpensive as the price signals indicate because those prices do not include the costs to human health and productivity, and the costs of natural resource destruction.

You have to kind of wonder why more research like this hasn’t been done across the Appalachian region. Isn’t this the kind of information our state leaders really need, as they try to sort out the controversy over mountaintop removal, figure out what kind of green jobs could make our state’s future bright, and generally look for A Better West Virginia?