Mountaintop removal and birth defects: Just what are the coal industry’s lawyers talking about?July 11, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.
It’s no surprise that lawyers from the firm Crowell & Moring are attacking the latest study by Melissa Ahern and West Virginia University’s Michael Hendryx indicating that people who live near mountaintop removal operations face a greater risk of birth defects.
But the internet posting from four of the firm’s lawyers — Clifford J. Zatz, William L. Anderson, Kirsten L. Nathanson, and Monica M. Welt — was, well, here’s what it said:
The study failed to account for consanquinity [sic], one of the most prominent sources of birth defects.
UPDATED: Crowell and Moring appears to have deleted this post from their law firm website … luckily, I saved it and have reposted it here so everyone can see it.
UPDATE 2: Nicole Quigley, a spokeswoman for Crowell & Moring, has issued this comment in response to my questions about their webpost and its disappearance —
Our website alert is not intended to reflect views of the National Mining Association, but is an attempt to identify certain potential weaknesses of the study in question. Consanguinity is one of a number of commonly addressed issues in studies of this type, regardless of geography. Scientists address this consideration regularly because it can matter to scientific conclusions, and do so regardless of locale. We did not raise this issue with particular reference to any region, and we did not mean to imply any such thing. That said, we apologize for any offense taken, as none was intended. We can appreciate the view that our alert may not have provided enough context to explain the scientific points we aimed to address, and so have removed it from our site.
I first saw this on a Facebook posting from our friend Bob Kincaid of Coal River Mountain Watch. Bob was not amused, alleging that Crowell & Moring (lawyers for the National Mining Association and various coal companies) had tried to blame the birth defects on “incest,” and writing in one comment:
Nice of the National Mining Association and their hired guns at Crowell-Moring to tell us how they REALLY feel about us!
I guess I really wanted to give the industry lawyers the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they meant to simply suggest that having lots of people who are related — several generations, siblings, cousins — all living in nearby h0llows near mining operations was something that needed to be studied. After all, there is evidence that some birth defects can have genetic causes.
I looked up consanguinity (I was pretty sure that was the word they meant to use, not consanquinity) and found that it meant:
… The property of being from the same kinship as another person. In that respect, consanguinity is the quality of being descended from the same ancestor as another person. Consanguinity is an important legal concept in that the laws of many jurisdictions consider consanguinity as a factor in deciding whether two individuals may be married or whether a given person inherits property when a deceased person has not left a will.
So, I asked Michael Hendryx about this … here’s what he said:
Consanguinity refers to levels of shared ancestry. It is a reference to in-breeding, not necessarily incest, but still insulting.
Consanguinity it is not just the same families living in the same area unless related members of those families are interbreeding.
Maybe they are referring to third cousins or distant relatives that might intermarry, but 1) research on whether higher birth defects occurs for relatives more distant than first cousins is very sparse, 2) they’d have to argue that MTM areas had more of these interbreeding pockets than other rural areas, and 3) they still don’t account for the higher effects found in recent time and in proximity to higher mining. This is another one of these attempts to say what the effects “really” are as an excuse to deny the serious health problems in MTM areas that exist across many health outcome measures. The reasons are partly due to the poor socioeconomic conditions that mining creates (not that are correlated with mining, but that mining creates), and may be due to the environmental pollution caused by mining.
The whole thing reminded me of an important study (with a great title) by anthropologist Robert Tincher, “Night Comes to the Chromosomes: Inbreeding and Population Genetics in Southern Appalachia.” Based on 140 years’ worth of marriage records, the study concluded that “inbreeding levels in Appalachia … are neither unique nor particularly common to the region, when compared with those reported for populations elsewhere or at earlier periods in American history.”
I emailed all for of the lawyers listed as authors of the web posting, asking them to explain what they meant. I haven’t heard back from any of them yet today, but if I do, I’ll post what they have to say — or I invite them to comment directly on this blog.
I also asked Carol Raulston, spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, about all of this. She said her organization had no role in the law firm’s web posting, but that she didn’t think anyone was saying that inbreeding was the cause of the birth defects reported in the Hendryx paper.
By the way, here’s what Michael Hendryx had to say about the other criticisms of his latest paper:
The criticisms raised are to be expected. I disagree that we overstated our findings. I think we’ve been appropriately cautious in what we say about limitations of the study and conclusions. This paper can’t be considered in isolation but should be taken with the more than dozen other studies that continue to document serious health problems related to mining. Regarding the dose response critique specifically, we did measure earlier versus later effects and found stronger effects in the later period as effects of mining have accumulated. We also found spatial correlation effects indicating an effect as mining activity occurred in a greater number of surrounding counties. Both of these indicate greater effects with greater exposure — dose response.