Coal Tattoo

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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.