Coal industry tries to take on WVU researcher, but National Mining Association stumbles and pulls Internet attacks on Hendryx health studies

May 21, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.

Yesterday afternoon, just as I was settling in to watch the Senate hearing on coal-mine safety, a fascinating “tweet” from the National Mining Association’s Mining Fan (that’s their logo above) popped onto my computer screen:

Yale professor debunks bogus studies on the health effects of Appalachian surface mining.

Wow … sounds like something worth checking out right away … apparently, I thought, a professor at a respected university has “debunked” the work of West Virginia University’s Michael Hendryx and concluded the Hendryx studies were “bogus.”

Well, it turns out, not so much — the statement, which was repeated on a National Mining Association Facebook page — was so out of line that NMA officials have pulled it from the Internet, taken back, if you will.

So what are we talking about? Well, Coal Tattoo readers certainly recall the work of WVU’s Hendryx, who has published a series of peer-reviewed studies that pointed to increased illnesses and premature deaths among Appalachian residents living near coal-mining operations and questioned whether the costs of those health impacts are greater than the industry’s economic benefits to the region.

As you can imagine, the coal industry was none too pleased about these studies. My buddy Roger Nicholson at International Coal Group wrote an op-ed piece attempting to debunk Hendryx. The National Mining Association went a step further, hiring Yale’s Jonathan Borak to take a closer look at the Hendryx studies.

And Borak apparently provided the mining lobby group with this, a 13-page document titled “Hendryx Critique,” which the NMA still has posted on its Web site. NMA also issued a news release about the critique, and a link in the now-deleted NMA “tweet” and “Facebook” post referred readers to that press release.

The press release itself is pretty carefully written, quoting directly from Dr. Borak’s words, saying the analysis of the Hendryx papers “found a number of factual discrepancies and methodological flaws” in the articles.

Some of the “flaws” are things that Hendryx himself made clear in his papers or that are easy to understand or explain: Difficulty in completely adjusting for other potential impacts on public health, such as obesity and smoking, inconsistent data availability over time for different geographic areas or boundaries, changes in data used in different studies as a scientist refines his thinking on a developing area of interest.

These are also the sorts of things that any good scientist can pick at in any other good scientists’ work.  Unfortunately, they’re also the sorts of things that can easily be misstated in press releases, let alone in the scary world of “social media” organizing by both sides in a heated issue like mountaintop removal. In this instance, you have to wonder if this wasn’t an effort at the phenomenon that current OSHA chief David Michaels described in this book, “Doubt Is Their Product,” which focused on industry efforts to generate much heat — and less light — over small questions or flaws in research being used to toughen workplace safety, environmental and consumer production rules.

In its press release, NMA vice president Bruce Watzman is quoted saying:

Dr. Borak’s findings are important to the entire mining community. They raise fundamental questions about the conclusions reached by Dr. Hendryx and their relevance to any assessment of the overall contributions of mining to Appalachia.

But there’s part of Dr. Borak’s “critique” that was conspicuously missing from the NMA press release (which might be the only thing that some members of the media bother to read). It’s this:

Our review illuminates a number of methodological concerns in the Hendryx research, but is not able to determine the magnitude of the resulting study bias. Further analysis, including data excluded in the Hendryx studies, would be necessary to estimate the actual magnitude and direction of such bias and to determine whether his findings are replicable.

Translation: Dr. Borak doesn’t know how significant any flaws in the Hendryx papers are, or even whether those flaws made the studies show a greater or lesser impact of coal on public health.

I asked Dr. Borak last night about the NMA’s “tweets” on his work, and whether he agreed with the characterization of the Hendryx studies as “bogus” and this is what he said in an e-mail response:

I did not use the terms “bogus” or “debunk” in my report, and I do not find those terms in the press release.

I also do not “tweet” and I have no insights into the “Tweet” that you attribute to the NMA PR office. If that is what they said, then you should probably ask them what they meant.

Yesterday afternoon, I also asked NMA spokeswoman Carol Raulston about the “tweet” and how it meshed with the conclusions in the Borak critique … She told me she hadn’t seen the post in question and didn’t have anything to do with NMA’s presence on Twitter.

But by this morning, the Twitter and Facebook posts had both been deleted. Raulston told me she had ordered the posts taken down:

We had been very careful in the language in the press releases. I didn’t think it was fair that they characterized Dr. Borak’s work in any other way than he had characterized it.

I also showed the Twitter post and Dr. Borak’s critique to Michael Hendryx, and this is what he had to say:

The only comment that I might make for the record is that this report was paid for by the mining industry, which has an obvious financial bias in the outcome of the report. I on the other hand, received no financial consideration from any environmental or advocacy group for the research studies cited in the NMA report. The NMA report has not been subject to peer review, unlike my studies. The NMA report is basically worthless. If they want to challenge the findings, there should be independent, peer-reviewed research not paid for by the industry showing that mining environments are healthy. The NMA report provides no such evidence.

23 Responses to “Coal industry tries to take on WVU researcher, but National Mining Association stumbles and pulls Internet attacks on Hendryx health studies”

  1. Jason Robinson says:

    Dr Hendryx’ point is much the same as made by defenders of science everywhere, whether it is evolutionary biology, climate change, cold fusion, etc. If the data exist, the venue for these discussions is in the peer reviewed primary literature. Social networking sites are not the appropriate forum for serious scientific investigations, and the fact that “skeptics” of conventional scientific knowledge prefer to mount their attacks in media outside of the scientific literature is a testimony to the quality of those arguments. If they were serious, these critiques would be published in the same journals where Hendryx (or whoever) publishes. Very interesting.

  2. concerned miner says:

    Ken, You are the master. Only you could take a Yale professors “peer review” of a study (a study that you have worshipped as the gospel) that says “found a number of factual discrepancies and methodological flaws” and make it somehow positive towards your “go to” study. I can’t compete with that.

  3. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    You’re wrong about one thing — social networking sites, blogs, and other internet creations can certainly be a forum for discussing serious scientific issues … IF those who are posting and reading are serious about having those kinds of discussions. It’s not the tool or the forum that is the problem, it is the misuse of those tools and forum by special interests.

    concerned miner,

    The point of my post is that, while the Yale review may have raised issues about the Hendryx papers, the Yale reviewer himself said it was not clear how significant those issues are or what they would mean — the NMA’s public affairs/social networking machine misstated what its own expert review found. That seems to make clear that the NMA’s pr efforts are just that — PR efforts, not serious efforts to discuss the validity of this sort of science.

    I would add that I have seen (and blogged about) folks in the “anti-coal” movement who have done the same sort of thing.


  4. concerned miner says:

    Ken, thanks for your honesty. I agree the NMA spin was completely wrong, but I will alway maintain that Hendryx is anti coal and that bias dictates how data is interpeted in the study. Just my opinion.

  5. Jason Robinson says:

    I’m not saying it’s inappropriate to talk about science on blogs. I am saying that peer reviewed literature is the place to formally hash out critiques of studies if those critiques are to be taken seriously by other scientists and policy makers that value science. The growth in blogs by PhD researchers blurs this line a bit but good arguments that don’t make it into the literature, don’t make it into the literature. Policy makers who use the literature as their yardstick for the state of knowledge should ignore blogs and PR, and if the NMA is serious about the truth of the matter then doing science (vs blogging about science) is the currency that they would be trading.

  6. Jason Robinson says:

    And to reiterate what Ken said to concerned miner, nowhere in this “debunk” (as posted yesterday) is there any estimation of how the results of Hendryx’ analyses might be affected by the suggestions offered by Dr Borak. If one is unable to ascertain the direction or magnitude of any possible bias, you are left with “not significantly different from zero”. The facebook post made today is a complete turnaround from the NMA one posted yesterday.

  7. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    So everyone knows what Jason is talking about, a while ago on its Facebook page, the NMA’s Advocacy Campaign Team for Mining posted this:

    Yale professor says W.Va. coal county mortality
    studies not bogus, just incomplete (along with a link to the critique,!/actformining

    They posted the same thing on the Twitter account.


  8. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    In addition, folks, I understand that Corey Henry, who is vice president for Grassroots Advocacy at the National Mining Association (and is apparently in charge of their social networking efforts), has apologized to Dr. Hendryx, saying:

    “The characterization I used was inappropriate and has been removed and replaced with a corrected headline.”


  9. Monty says:

    Interesting how it has devolved from “bogus” to “incomplete.” Heaven forbid the NMA admit that maybe it was flat-out wrong.

  10. I have used several of Michael Hendryx’s studies in the public health courses I teach at George Washington University. His papers are an excellent example of the challenges that public health researchers face when trying to assess associations between complex environmental exposures and health outcomes. Dr. Hendryx should be applauded for trying to indentify risk factors that may contribute to chronic disease conditions in West Virginia. It is a State with a population with numerous below average health measures, and trying to identify the risk factors associated with adverse health is the first step in designing effective interventions. Dr. Hendryx uses well established epidemiological methods to assemble data from multiple public data sources, and acknowledges openly the limitations of these data. Anyone who has worked as an epidemiologist knows that there is no such thing as a perfect study. Your wrestle often with the best data available—-if we waited for perfect data, we’d never learn anything about the world around us.

    Anyone who’s taken an introductory epi course can very easily tick off 4-5 “flaws” in a published study. Even robust, well-funded and complex analysis linking cigarette smoking and lung cancer were critiqued and picked apart by the tobacco industry. Critiquing somebody else’s work is easy—and is probably easy money. Securing funding, managing large datasets, conducting complex analyses and interpreting data, takes real work, and we need dozens more dedicated public health researchers like Dr. Michael Hendryx studying how our environment degrades (or enhances) a community’s health.

  11. Lisa deGruyter says:

    The wording of the first point Dr. Borak makes in the critique, that different numbers of Appalachian counties are used in the studies, implies that Dr. Hendryx (and his co-authors) didn’t even know how many counties there were. In fact, three counties in Ohio, three in Kentucky, and two in Tennessee were added to the ARC area in late 2008, raising the total to the current 420 listed by the ARC. There might be a legitimate point that the data in the two studies using 413 Appalachian counties is not completely comparable to those using 417. But to imply that the number was arbitrary and incomplete is either sloppy or political.

    Not having access to all of the studies, it is difficult to tell how accurate the other points are; however, given the apparent slant of this point makes one wonder if the other points are similarly slanted.

    Beyond that, Dr. Hendryx makes clear in his latest broad study that his results do not prove that the pollution caused by coal-mining cause the higher death rate, just that death rates appear to be higher in Appalachian coal-mining areas. There are many factors related to mining that could contribute, for example, the stress on miners and their families by 60-hour work weeks, the lack of alternative jobs, and lack of control, all of which have been found in other places, by other researchers, to contribute to poor health.

  12. Dr. Borak’s complete critique is available on NMA’s web site. I encourage anyone interested in community health in West Virginia to read it. The work speaks for itself and needs no characterization–appropriate on inappropriate–to enhance its usefulness. Further, I do not believe Dr. Borak would risk his reputation at Yale for a small commission from NMA. Unfortunately, Ken has chosen to focus on a single word in a social media headline, rather than on NMA’s press statement releasing the analysis or the analysis itself.

    Carol Raulston
    National Mining Association

  13. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    I included a link to Dr. Borak’s critique in my original post, but I’ll provide it again here:

    And let’s not forget that it was an NMA staffer and officer — someone paid to generate “grassroots” support for the mining industry — who decided to misstate what Dr. Borak’s critique found. It’s those sorts of misstatements that are “shared” via social networking sites and are meant to influence public opinion on these very important issues.

    If NMA believes that Dr. Borak had something important to say, perhaps the group should have been more careful how it went about trying to spread the word about that message.


  14. Jason Robinson says:

    If this study, or any study, is legitimately flawed, why not take that discussion directly to the scientific literature?

    If any specific conclusions made by Hendrix et al in these studies are flawed by the methodological concerns alleged by Borak, why not reanalyze those data accordingly and publish the results?

    As an example, why not reanalyze Hendrix’ results using whatever number of coal-producing Appalachian counties he desires?

    Why wave hands about unknown direction and magnitude of unknown biases?

    I wonder if Dr Borak will distance himself from NMA in the future given their apparent willingness to distort his critique.

  15. Casey says:

    I don’t know why the Hendyrx study grossly understated the financial benefits of the coal industry at only $8 Billion. A conservative estimate by Kent & Witt was $25 Billion. If the Hendryx study understated the benefits of coal, is it possible that this study overestimated the costs associated with coal?

  16. floyd campbell says:

    I didn’t read the study or critique in question, but I do know scientific method. If the results of a study cannot be replicated, then the methodology is flawed.

  17. Thomas Rodd says:

    Great discussion above. The demography/epidemiology of the human health effects associated with living near coal mining has got to be amazingly complex, and it’s not surprising that there are lots of ways to critique any study in this area, including Hendryx’s.

    For example, I think the socioeconomic “status effect” that the famous scientis Michael Marmot found ( could easily account for much of what Hendryx found. But I am not a social scientist.

    Like Jason, I hope Hendryx replies to this critique, preferably in a scholarly forum.

  18. Rob says:

    In plain language, it appears that the NMA threw some mud at Prof. Hendryx because they feel threatened by his study. The underlying facts are 1) Mining companies make money, 2) People living around mining country seem to have poor health, 3) Mining companies don’t want adverse publicity, such as how unhealthy their industry is for workers and surrounding communities. It might affect their ability to make money.

    Lisa deGruyter’s more holistic view is probably the best approach to take here when she says:

    “There are many factors related to mining that could contribute, for example, the stress on miners and their families by 60-hour work weeks, the lack of alternative jobs, and lack of control, all of which have been found in other places, by other researchers, to contribute to poor health.”

    And while there may be studies and counter-studies regarding the effects of coal mining on the population living and working in coal country, what’s going to change?

  19. Monty says:

    It’s amazing (but not really, when you think about it) how often history repeats itself. This same kind of thing played itself out in the Huntington Tri-State area 20-odd years ago, when Ashland Oil was having all kinds of problems with its Reduced Crude Conversion unit and regularly covering surrounding neighborhoods with various and sundry “harmless emissions.”

    Like the medical school student who did a summer public health study that suggested there might possibly be some link between resident’s health complaints and spikes in Ashland’s emissions. He did a report, gave the results to the local media, and before he even made it home to California (I think), Ashland was already on the phone to, among others, his department chair, the med school dean, and anyone else they could find on a weekend – the kid’s math was wrong, his hair was wrong, who did he think he was, what business did the school have turning this student loose doing reasearch, etc., etc.

    It was classic kill the messenger and a total corporate full-court press, not unlike what Massey Energy was attempting to do to MSHA in the hearings this week -it’s not us, it’s THEM.

    My experience, having been on the receiving end of these kind of exercises more than once, is that without exception the ones screaming the loudest are the ones who have the most to hide. They merely hope to distract the herd-like masses from the painfully obvious by screaming long enough and loud enough at something else until the original reason for the whole fracas is forgotten.

    It worked very well for Ashland for a number of years. It will be interesting to see if it continues to work as well now as it has in the past for Massey.

  20. Thomas Rodd says:

    Well said, Rob.

  21. Gordon says:

    If all of this sounds familiar, just recall the the tobacco industry’s reassurances that smoking is actually good for you. Hack, hack.

  22. Tom Bethell says:

    Coming late to this thread, I’d like to offer two quick thoughts:

    (1) Classic example of alert reporting by Ken Ward. Otherwise NMA wouldn’t have been called out on its obvious effort to discredit unfavorable research.

    (2) NMA’s Raulston should be willing to quantify the “small commission” awarded to Dr. Borak for his research. “Small” means how many dollars, precisely? Back in 1962, when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health wrote and published academic papers trashing her credentials, methodology, etc. As a young editor at Houghton Mifflin (her publisher), I was asked to look into the question of why the researchers were so critical. Turned out they were being paid “small commissions” by the agribusiness industry, principal users of DDT. After we publicized that fact, the attacks on Carson suddenly stopped. Must have been pure coincidence. NMA please take note.

  23. […] lay a glove on what Hendryx has reported in the literature. It’s not quite as bad as the National Mining Association’s silly effort to attack Hendryx, but it doesn’t really add much to a reasonable discussion of coal’s proper role in the […]

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