Coal Tattoo

Over the last few weeks, there have been a lot of rumblings from folks in the coal industry about the big West Virginia University study that concluded the adverse health effects of coal mining in Appalachian far outweigh the industry’s economic contribution to the region.

1058-roger-nicholson.jpgI give Roger Nicholson, vice president and general counsel of International Coal Group, credit for actually trying to respond in writing in a public forum, rather than grumbling in private.

But in his Sunday Gazette-Mail commentary, Nicholson hardly lays a glove on the study.  And because he spends little time or effort in actually critiquing the methods of the study, his criticism doesn’t amount to much as far as really discussing the costs and benefits of coal — or what role coal could or should play in the region’s future.

Roger starts out by saying my initial coverage of the study ignored “some key facts” and held WVU researcher Michael Hendryx and his co-author, Melissa Ahern of Washington State University, to a “much lower standard of factual rigor than [the Gazette] would  a pro-coal industry study.”

Well, it’s worth noting that this study appeared in a respected scientific journal, Public Health Reports — a journal that puts such articles through an accepted peer-review examination before they are published. Like the previous coal-related articles by Hendryx, this one went through the process that science recognizes for an examination of factual and methodological rigor. That doesn’t mean it is a perfect study. There is no such thing. But unlike the pro-coal studies that industry officials prefer the public to focus on — see examples here and here — the work Hendryx is doing is being reviewed and approved by other scientists as meeting accepted standards.

I  will say that I and many other journalists probably do far too many stories about “reports” and “studies” that were put together by various interest groups, rather than looking more to the peer-reviewed literature to help us educate the public. For example, there is much to be learned from reviewing the peer-reviewed scientific literature about mountaintop removal’s environmental impacts.

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But this study, Mortality in Appalachian Coal Mining Regions: The Value of Statistical Life Lost, is not simply a report by one side or the other in the endless debate over coal. As the chart above shows, the study reports that mortality rates in coal producing counties are higher than those in other Appalachian counties and the nation as a whole.

Its findings are important, as  I wrote in my initial story on the study:

Writing with co-author Melissa Ahern of Washington State University, Hendryx reports that the coal industry generates a little more than $8 billion a year in economic benefits for the Appalachian region.

But, Hendryx and Ahern put the value of premature deaths attributable to the mining industry across the Appalachian coalfields at — by one of their most conservative estimates — $42 billion.

“The human cost of the Appalachian coal mining economy outweighs its economic benefits,” they wrote.

Roger writes that the Hendryx-Ahern study “is deeply flawed and does not withstand the scrutiny that its authors would apply to their own students.” But he offers little evidence to support such a strong criticism.He writes that the authors are biased. To support that, he makes fun of the purpose of Ahern’s Northwest Climate Change Center in Spokane, Wash., but admits he knows little about that organization. And, to show that Hendryx is biased, he cites his feeling that another one of his studies was also “fatally flawed” (again offering little evidence of that).

Then, Roger belittles the Hendryx-Ahern study for including in its footnotes references to an Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition article by Vivian Stockman and a book about the coal industry by Jeff Goodell.  He doesn’t point out that neither citation is a major point of the study and that neither really has anything to do with the methods or data used by Hendryx and Ahern. (Of course, Roger also doesn’t point out that Goodell is a very established and respected author and journalist, either).

In his entire commentary, Roger offers only one real criticism of the study itself, the data it uses, or the methods behind it. Here it is:

Finally, the report ignores taxes other than severance taxes. Unmined mineral taxes and other real and personal property taxes generate multimillions of dollars in public funds annually. These taxes, as well as severance taxes that benefit both coal-producing and noncoal-producing counties, are essential to the provision of governmental services and the development of infrastructure required to diversify the economy. 

As best I’m able to tell, that criticism is on the mark. Hendryx and Ahern used as their starting point in figuring coal’s economic benefits a previous study done at the University of Kentucky. This U.K. study itself did not attempt to include such impacts, citing “the complexity of modeling these local tax rates and coverage in all of 118 major coal-producing counties.”

Hendryx and Ahern added to the economic impact numbers and made some important adjustments. But they did not add in figures for property taxes on unmined coal. Roger is right about that. UPDATED,3:45 P.M.TUESDAY — However, even if hundreds of millions of dollars a year in property taxes on unmined coal were added, it would still not bump the cost-benefit ratio in coal’s favor.

This is not the study’s only shortcoming. In fact, the authors themselves outlined some relevant problems with their work … right there in the study itself:

Despite the significant associations between coal-mining activity and both socio-economic disadvantage and premature mortality, it cannot be stated with certainty that coal-mining causes these problems.  It is not possible to determine what the economic and public health outcomes would be in these areas in the absence of mining.

I included, by the way, a discussion of these and other problems in my initial story for our print edition and in my blog post on the study:

The study is far from a complete cost-benefit analysis of the coal industry, the authors report. But, the things it leaves out, they say, are mostly costs that they haven’t been able to completely account for yet.

“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.”

But Roger and others in the coal industry haven’t so far offered any constructive criticism aimed at improving the ability of researchers to do a true cost-benefit study of the coal-mining and coal-burning industries.

You think perhaps the industry folks would rather not have that kind of discussion? Maybe Hendryx and Ahern were on to something with this statement:

The reliance on coal mining in some areas of Appalachia constitutes a de facto economic policy: coal is mined because it is present and because there is a market for it.  However, other economic policies could be developed if reliance on this resource was not in the best interest of the local population.