Coal’s costs and benefits: Online chat transcript

June 22, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.

hendryxpic1.jpgHere’s the transcript of today’s Online Chat with West Virginia University’s Michael Hendryx about his new study on the costs and benefits of coal mining

Gary Harki:  Good afternoon and welcome.

Gary Harki:  The live chat with WVU researcher Michael Hendryx will begin in a few minutes. Feel free to go ahead and submit questions.

Michael Hendryx:  Thanks Gary for setting this up, and to everyone for taking time to participate.   I’ll try to answer any questions as best I can.

Ken Ward Jr.:  You all can also check out our coverage of the WVU coal study on the Coal Tattoo blog.

Ken Ward Jr.:  Thanks to Dr. Hendryx for taking the time to join us.

Gary Harki:  Thanks again for taking the time to do this, Mr. Hendryx. I think we’re ready to begin.

Gary Harki:  Ken, why don’t you start us off with a question.

Ken Ward Jr.:  To start off, Dr. Hendryx, could you just give us a quick summary of your findings?

Michael Hendryx:  It is hard to get an exact answer to that question because it is hard to separate out the effects of mountain top mining from other mining, as all forms of mining are taking place in close proximity to each other.   But best as we can tell, direct effects include air pollution from increased surface disturbance (explosives, removing overburden), water pollution from drainage, stream spoilage, and water pollution from coal cleaning.

Michael Hendryx:  Sorry — I messed up already, and reponded to a question on the side bar, not in the middle.


Ken Ward Jr.:  That’s OK … maybe you could give us a summary of the findings, and then we’ll start adding questions from readers.


Gary Harki:  No big deal. Here’s the question Mr. Hendryx just answered…


[Comment From Lance Houser ]

How does mountain top removal coal mining effect people’s health directly and indirectly? Compared to other forms of coal mining?


Michael Hendryx:  Quick summary: people who live in coal mining counties in Appalachia have higher mortality rates from some types of cancer, and some forms of illness.   This is partly the result of poor economic conditions like poverty, and partly due to environmental impacts in my view.


[Comment From Jason ]

With your research in mind, what will it take to change the mentality among West Virginians (and state politicians) that the short term, personal gain of coal employment isn’t sustainable or in their long term interests?


Michael Hendryx:  I hope (maybe unrealistically) that what makes the most current study different is the focus on the economy.   In the past, the argument has been “environment versus jobs”, that we need coal mining because of the jobs that it creates.   But I think this research challenges that, and maybe politicians will begin to see that we can have a better economy if we work to create a more diverse economy that does not depend on coal.


[Comment From Roy Silver ]

About 30 years ago, MACED, (The Mountain Association for Community Economic Development) published a study on Coal. They will publish an update soon. One of the findings was that the total tax revenues generated from coal in Kentucky did not cover the costs for the road damage. Did you uncover similar findings?


Michael Hendryx:  Unfortunately I don’t have information specific to road damage.   But it illustrates that many of the costs of coal dependence, road damage, forest damage, etc aren’t usually counted.


Ken Ward Jr.:  Dr. Hendryx, you’ve published several studies that have tried to focus attention on these sorts of issues — what got you interested in this particular field of research, and were you surprised that this sort of material wasn’t already out there, given Appalachia’s long history of coal mining?


Michael Hendryx:  I moved to WV 3 years ago and was very surprised that it wasn’t already being done.   I’d heard anecdotal stories about health problems related to coal, but found no real research.   So I thought this could be a way to make important new contributions.   I didn’t know what I would find at first — maybe nothing.   But the more I looked, the more I saw.


[Comment From Matt ]

Dr Hendryx, what type of policies would you recommend be taken to more properly account for the costs and benefits of coal on WV?


Michael Hendryx:  Coal mining counties and towns should receive more of the coal severance tax, and less should go to state government.   The tax should be used to promote education and job creation.


Also, air and water quality around mining should be more carefully monitored and controlled.   And mountaintop mining should be eliminated.


[Comment From Lance Houser ]

How has the lack of media coverage on disasters such as the recent coal ash spill in Tennessee effected the movement away from coal to cleaner forms of energy? Is human health concerns the best way to get attention from the media?


Michael Hendryx:  I don’t know if its the best way, but it seems to be one good way.   When my research first started coming out in the media last year, even some people who are pro-coal said that we need to be more careful about how we mine to protect health.


Gary Harki:  Here’s a question from Thomas Rodd. For some reason, I couldn’t post it directly from him. …


Did your work take into account the hypothesi[…]s that these kinds of epidemiological health outcome disparities may well be in large measure the effect of status differentials – as opposed to environmental contaminants, or diet or health care differences? Sir Michael Marmot is the great epidemiologist in this area — he contributed to a PBS project that’s worth a look: Somewhat unbelievably, there’s a lot of evidence that status-related circumstances like “feeling in control of your life” are statistically and clinically important in longevity — the “status effect” can be shown to even (statistically) “offset” things like tobacco smoking. Of course, poverty and related circumstances in the deep coalfields are currently status-lowering for many people. Anyhow, in understanding your results, I think we have to accept that so-called “psychological conditions”, mediated and expressed through still-poorly-understood physiological mechanisms, are probably important direct influences leading to lower overall longevity, etc. for many people — not just the usual suspects of pollution, diet, workplaces.


Michael Hendryx:  I think those factors are important.   I think one reason we see effects related to poverty and lower education is that people who are disadvantaged in these ways are under greater stress.   Stress is a real physiological impact, not just “in your head”.   In one of our studies we were able to measure “social capital” and fuond coal-related effects even after considering this variable, but I haven’t had access to that type of data for the most part.   Income inequality could be another important influence but I haven’t tried to look at that so far.   My general approach is one of “social disparities”: the health differentials result from the entire matrix of behavioral, psychological, economic and environmental disadvantages, and coal mining communities tend to be worse off on all these dimensions.


Ken Ward Jr.:  Dr. Hendryx, One reader of my blog complained that the headline on our print edition story — “Coal’s costs outweigh benefits” was inaccurate, because you say in your study that you can’t PROVE the excess deaths are CAUSED by coal mining. Could you explain a little bit about what your work does show, regarding the disparity between mortality in coal and non-coal communities, and whether those differences are statistically significant?


Michael Hendryx:  The differences are definitely statistically significant.   As an academic researcher, I am trained to be cautious in the conclusions that I make.   Strictly speaking, I can’t say with 100% guarantee what coal mining towns would be like if coal were not there.   Coal IS there.   But it seems very likely that these towns would be like other WV towns that don’t have coal — and those towns have higher incomes, less poverty, less unemployment, and lower death rates.   I am very confident, as confident as a researcher can be, that coal mining is a contributing factor to poor economic conditions and premature motrality.


[Comment From Ryan Wishart ]

Some of the environmental justice literature in the social sciences criticizes standard health risk assessments for neglecting the synergistic effects of poverty and lower educational levels on morbidity and mortality. For example, from limited access to regular health screening etc. What sort of implications do you think your study has along these lines in terms of public policy (for example in the permitting process) in the coalfields.


Michael Hendryx:  I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you mean by the “permitting process”? That permits for mining should be restricted because of the effects on poverty and educational access?   If that’s what you mean, then I think it relates to the general question of developing alternatives to a mining economy, to reduce levels of coal mining and ultimately eliminate our reliance on it as stronger economies come on line.


[Comment From Brian ]

Dr. Hendryx, were you able to break out the cost/benefit ratios any for different types of mining? For example, is it a situation where the ratio for underground mining is closer to even or are all the methods pretty well lopsided?


Michael Hendryx:  Before I answer Brian, I’d like to say something to Jamie, who saidf there’s no proof that pollution comes from mining.   The evidence is limited to be sure, and we need to get better data, but there is some pretty good information out there.   Much of it comes from studies of coal mining outside the US, showing air pollution around mining.   There is also increasing evidence that water quality is impaired from mining.


Gary Harki:  Just for the record, here was Jamie’s comment….


[Comment From jamie ]

I would like to see proof.There isnt any pollution that comes from mining coal.Wow


Michael Hendryx:  Brian, it is very hard to separate out effect of underground and surface mining because both forms occur in close proximity.   But surface mining uses fewer employees per ton of coal mined, so the ratios would be worse for surface mining.


[Comment From Leah ]

So, after living in WV, what kind of ‘new economy’ might you suggest? Tourism is brought up often, but while the jobs might be a bit more plentiful, they aren’t highly skilled or highly paid. I’d be interested to hear your perspective.


Michael Hendryx:  I wouldn’t rely on tourism, although that could be a partial strategy in some places.   One reason I wouldn’t rely on it is because tourism depends on cheap gas, and even though gas prices are temporalily down, they will be going up again as gas supplies dwindle.   I think we need to consider a mix of solutions including ecosystem restoration, sustainable timber, small agriculture, development of renewalable energy like hydro and wind, and investments in entrepreneurial ventures.   We also need greater basic investment in education.


Ken Ward Jr.:  Would it be fair to say that the numbers you used to calculate the economic benefits of coal were broad and pretty inclusive, but that the numbers you have used for calculating the costs are not as broad — and perhaps leave out many things that a true cost-benefit analysis would want to include?


Michael Hendryx:  I think that is a fair statement.   I may not have been able to count all tax benefits, such as property or business taxes, but otherwise the benefits are pretty well captured I think.   I was not able to estimate some of the additional costs, like medical care costs for increased illness.   I also couldn’t estimate the costs of destroying natural resources like forests and streams; some limited research on this suggests that those costs could be enormous and outweigh even the mortality costs.


I also focused only on coal mining, not burning coal in power plants.   Burning coal to create power has large economic benefit, but also large ecnomic costs because pollution from coal burning kills more people than coal mining.   I deliberately limited the analysis to coal mining so the Appalachian people and governments could consider whether our reliance on coal mining for the economy was a good idea or not.


[Comment From Ryan Wishart ]

In clarification, I was thinking in terms of the thresholds for levels of contaminants released into the environment or likely to be released that are considered to be acceptable.


Michael Hendryx:  OK, that make sense now.   I definitely agree that tighter standards on emissions controls is an important potential outcomes of this research.


Ken Ward Jr.:  To follow- up on what you were saying about not including the costs of damage from burning coal … I’m assuming you also did not include any economic benefits from that? And, could you speak at all about where global warming — and the huge costs to the environment and public health from the climate crisis — fit into all of this discussion?


Michael Hendryx:  Yes, I did not include in my study either the costs or the benefits of burning coal.   I focused only on costs and benefits of mining.


Regarding climate change, we know that coal is the biggest source of C02.   To address climate change, we need to reduce our dependence on coal.   Governments in the US and globally are moving to tighter restrictions on emissions and this could, possibly, have a large impact on reducing coal demand.   (Personally I doubt we are ready to get serious about climate change around the world, but we might.)   If coal demand goes down, that is just one more reason to start to work now on developing an economy that doesn’t rely on it.


[Comment From Lance Houser ]

In response to Jamie: If not from mining, than definently from the cleaning process. The recent coal ash spill in Tennessee was about 100 times more polluting than the Exxon-Valdez incident. Another question: What advice do you have for college students that would like to get involved in research on coal mining and it’s effects, be it health, social or environmentally?


Michael Hendryx:  Find faculty mentors with similar interests, study the basic sciences, and get involved in local communities.


[Comment From Arcadian ]

Would not the current impact we are seeing from Coal slurry, particularly that pumped underground be considered a pollutant effect of Coal mining?


Michael Hendryx:  Yes.   ALthough I think slurry held in surface impoundments is also very important, and think maybe the recent focus on underground injection might be too limiting.


[Comment From Azure ]

what is the viability of wind farms in the coalfields of WV?


Michael Hendryx:  I’ve heard mixed opinions about that.   Some people think it could be very important.   But others doubt that wind is sufficient in many WV places to be a viable alternative.   There is also the problem of getting the electricity generated from wind into the grid, which can be expensive and destructive of land.   I’m not an expert on wind energy, but my impression is that it could be an alternative in some places, but probably not a complete solution.


[Comment From Ben ]

What would it take to do more detailed research on health effects directly related to specific coal practices?


Michael Hendryx:  We need to do studies that directly measure air and water quality where people live, and directly measure physiological health impacts in relation to this environmental exposure, both for persons who live in mining areas and those who do not.   This is a more expensive, lengthy study than the ones I’ve been able to do so far, but would be the important next step.   I’m trying to write some research grants to support it!


Ken Ward Jr.:  As mentioned before, you’ve published several papers on related issues now. What has the response been like — any state policymakers asking for this information or seeking help in charting our future direction? Are they providing money for more of this work?


Michael Hendryx:  I have received feedback and interest from some federal policymakers, but no one in the state has asked me directly for any input or direction.   That has been disappointing.   And its one reason why I wanted to focus on the economic impacts.   I will be trying to get this information more in the eyes of state policymakers in the months to come.


[Comment From Monica from ACCCE ]

What about building plants using clean coal technology?


Michael Hendryx:  I think there are enourmous technical and financial barriers to clean coal technology.   It can work on a small scale but to make it widely implemented would be incredibly expensive, and maybe not workable.   The money we are investing in this technology should be invested in renewal energy in my opinion.


The other scary thing about clean coal technology is that if we do try to implement it, it concerns only how coal is burned, not how it is mined.   If use of coal continues this way, conditions for the residents of the coalfields will continue to be poor.


Also, I have to sign off because I have another meeting at 3.   Thanks everyone for your interest, sorry I couldn’t answer more questions.


[Comment From Mark Ross ]

Dr. Hendryx, the rate of Anxiety, Depression, and other Psycological disorders are very high, if not the highest in the nation, here in West Virginia. Would it not be prudent to start a study to find out if “working and living in a coal community” is related to this high rate of mental illness?


Michael Hendryx:  There is some evidence that it is.   I think some University of Chicago researchers recently published something on this.   Again, sorry but I’m late for another obligation.


Ken Ward Jr.:  Thanks again, Dr. Hendryx, for taking the time to talk to us more about your new study.


Gary Harki:  Ok, yes, thanks again Mr. Hendryx. Ken, anything else?


Ken Ward Jr.:  Just don’t forget, folks, you can read about this study on Coal Tattoo.


Gary Harki:  This concludes our live chat.


One Response to “Coal’s costs and benefits: Online chat transcript”

  1. […] his Coal Tattoo blog, Ward hosted an online chat with Hendryx. Here’s an exchange between the two about what the study didn’t capture: Ken Ward Jr.:  Would […]

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