Daily Mail ignores WVU coal health studies, then publishes mining industry’s attack commentary

August 17, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

Over the last five years, Michael Hendryx and other researchers at West Virginia University, in conjunction with scientists at Washington State University and elsewhere,  have published 18 studies in peer-reviewed science journals about the potential public health impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining.

The studies have been widely debated among folks who follow coal industry issues. They’ve been cited at least twice in Congressional testimony by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They’ve been covered most recently by CNN in a nationally televised, hour-long documentary.

But if you read the Charleston Daily Mail, you might not know a darned thing about this research. Daily Mail reporters and editors don’t think it’s news.

That alone would be hard enough to imagine — and impossible really for the Daily Mail to defend. How in the world is it not news when scientists at the state’s land-grant institution publish not one, not two — but 18 — papers that raise serious questions about public health dangers related to activities of one of the state’s major industries?

But not content to simply ignore the news value of this research, the Daily Mail on Monday published an 840-word, scurrilous attack on Dr. Hendryx, his fellow researchers and their work (and perhaps, by extension, anyone who has cited this work and said it looks kind of important).

In not-so-subtle terms, coal industry publicist T.L. Headley makes some serious allegations. He carefully avoids accusing Dr. Hendryx by name of any wrongdoing, but the implication is clear:

The claims by some in the “science for hire” community that coal mining causes the myriad health problems faced by many West Virginians is a classic example of prostitution of science in the service of a political agenda.

Science for hire? Prostitution of science?

I checked with Dr. Hendryx — he’s probably getting tired of being asked this question — and he told me he’s received no funding from anti-mountaintop removal groups or any environmental groups. His work is being done as part of his job at the university. (Crazy notion, huh? A public health researcher at the state’s land-grand university researching the public health impacts of a major industrial activity in the state.)

Does the Daily Mail have some evidence that Dr. Hendryx has taken money from anti-coal groups and then tried to cover up that funding? If so, why don’t they publish that evidence, rather than allowing this sort of attack?

Headley’s commentary is headlined, “Common sense about coal and health: The effect of coal on health is not ‘settled science.'”

Common sense?

Perhaps Headley is trying to follow the example set by Sen. Joe Manchin, whose “common sense” program for West Virginia focuses at least in part on refusing to talk about mountaintop removal’s public health effects.

The Daily Mail’s editors described Headley as:

… A native of Lincoln County, is a journalist and public relations professional specializing in the energy industry and economic development.

What they didn’t specify is that in recent years, he’s been a publicist for both the West Virginia Coal Association and the Logan County Coal Vendors.  As an aside, Headley wrote a fascinating series of online commentaries — “The Art of War: Applying the Principles of Sun Tzu to Public Relations” — about how companies should deal with the media and environmental protesters. Among other things, Headley advised coal companies to prepare for “crisis communication” for mining deaths because, well, these things just happen in the coal industry:

Death and injury are unfortunately somewhat common in mines. They will occur if the mine is in production long enough. It is just a question of when they will occur.

Anyway, Headley’s Daily Mail piece doesn’t cite one single alleged error in the methodology or data used by Dr. Hendryx.  Instead, it resorts to lecturing readers about the alleged misuse of science:

One of the most common errors in analyzing data is assignment of ‘causation’ to a factor that is simply ‘correlated’ to another.

It’s certainly true that some in the environmental community and its media supporters have gone farther in their statements that Dr. Hendryx has in his science, the most recent example being the piece Jeff Biggers wrote that the latest WVU study had “directly linked” 60,000 cases of cancer to mountaintop removal.

But that’s not what Headley is arguing … he’s telling readers he knows what causes West Virginia’s health problems, and that it’s got nothing to do with mountaintop removal:

While West Virginians have significant health issues compared with the rest of the country, the true “causal” factors can easily be determined. They already have been.

West Virginians are overweight. West Virginians smoke or chew tobacco. We don’t exercise. We have unhealthy eating habits. We have a much lower college-going rate, a higher incidence of teen pregnancies, poor access to health care and a host of other factors that directly contribute to poor health profiles.

These same problems also contribute to tertiary impacts such as higher rates of birth defects, suicides, depression, etc.

Now, this is all kind of funny, this notion Headley puts forth that what causes health problems here has already being determined. Just a few sentences before, Headley was ranting about people who say that “the science is settled” and arguing that science is never settled.

In fact, Dr. Hendryx and his work are grounded in the notion that science isn’t settled.  As Living On Earth explained in a profile of Dr. Hendryx, he’s trying hard to help the science about mining’s impacts grow and evolve:

Hendryx is clearly mining a rich vein of health issues in coal country and his work points to alarming impacts of the most destructive form of mining. Part of what makes his work so interesting is that no one had done it before. Mountaintop removal mining has been a controversial issue in Appalachia since at least the mid-1990s and coalfield citizens have long complained of health problems, and possible links to coal and rock dust from blasting and trucking, contaminated streams and groundwater, and toxic chemicals at coal preparation plants. Yet when Hendryx arrived in West Virginia he found almost no scientific health investigation work underway.

“When I did a literature review I couldn’t find anything!” he said. “I was really surprised. There were lots of stories, lots of anecdotes about health problems for people in mining environments but very little, almost no research.”

I asked him why he thought no other researchers had looked into these issues.

“I’ve asked myself that same question,“ he said. “When I first started to talk to some of my colleagues here at the University, um, I think they were skeptical. I think they probably assumed that the health problems here were due to other factors, they were just the result of poverty, or just the result of poor health behaviors like smoking, and didn’t think that the mining contributions were real. I don’t know why.”

Maybe nobody had done this sort of research before because they knew if they did, they’d be subject to the kinds of attacks that have been aimed repeatedly at Dr. Hendryx.

18 Responses to “Daily Mail ignores WVU coal health studies, then publishes mining industry’s attack commentary”

  1. Robin B says:

    I, for one, am incredibly grateful to Dr. Hendryx for his hard and courageous work in this area. All the folks who claim to be pro-life should wake up and note that birth defects amongst populations living near surface mine sites, are elevated MORE than birth defects found in babies born to mothers who smoke! We have a health crisis in WV that is affecting the most innocent bystanders there can be: babies and unborn children. Wake up, WV! Coal is NOT our friend if it continues to be mined in ways that severely damage human health. Think about the cost to our health care systems, if nothing else…

  2. Jose says:

    First, Mr. Headley’s comments may more accurately apply to certain lawsuits and the “experts” making those claims.
     
    Second, Dr. Hendryx may be technically correct he has received no funding from environmental groups, but he has (1) co-authored with Bo Webb a know environmental activist (selection bias anyone?) and (2) the data he relies on (in at least several papers) for his spatial data on mountaintop removal comes from a blog (Skytruth – arguably an environmental group) that developed its data in conjunction with Appalachian Voices – an environmental group. 
     
    Dr. Hendryx’s allegedly clean hands in this science are tainted by the bias of the data he uses.
     
    While I applaud the author for taking to task the Daily Mail and the comments of Headley, perhaps less time should be spent fawning over Hendryx and more time digging deeper into his research. 

  3. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Jose,

    A couple of things to keep in mind …

    First, Headley did not allege anything about lawsuits or any lawyers using the Hendryx studies. Further, I’m not aware that Dr. Hendryx has agreed to work as an expert witness in any lawsuits — and I’m sure he’s had the opportunity to do so.

    Exactly what lawsuits are you referring to that involve experts making these claims?

    Second, regarding Bo Webb’s co-authorship of 1 of the 18 papers in question here, the paper itself described the selection of the study respondents. There’s absolutely no indication that Bo Webb picked certain individuals to be surveyed and certain others not. It was a door-to-door survey. I don’t think your criticism of “selection bias” holds much water.

    Third, it’s true that at least one of Dr. Hendryx’s papers, “The association between mountaintop mining and birth defects among live births in central Appalachia,1996–2003” used data from the SkyTruth website, http://blog.skytruth.org/2009/12/measuring-mountaintop-removal-mining-in.html … and also that SkyTruth worked with Appalachian Voices on that website. But that map is based on satellite imagery. Are you suggesting that there are significant problems with the data and, if so, what are those problems?

    Not for nothing, but that paper — and the data it used — were good enough to pass peer review for the journal Environmental Research, which is not exactly a nothing sort of publication.

    Finally, while I think 3 of Dr. Hendryx’s papers used the SkyTruth mapping data, other papers he’s published used other mapping data, such as mining permit boundary data from regulatory agencies.

    Ken.

  4. concerned miner says:

    Ken

    How many papers has Hendryx published about other environmental health concerns in WV besides MTM?

  5. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Concerned miner,

    I don’t know the answer to your question. Sorry. I’ll ask him, though.

    Ken.

  6. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Concerned Miner,

    There is a copy of his CV online here, http://www.hsc.wvu.edu/som/cmed/Research/CV/HendryxM-CV.pdf … Ken.

  7. John Amos says:

    Regarding the work by SkyTruth – I’m founder and President of SkyTruth. My folks were born and raised in the northern panhandle. I’m a geologist and spent 10 years working for the oil and gas and mining industries, doing exploration and environmental studies with satellite imagery. At SkyTruth we work to increase public understanding of environmental issues by investigating, measuring, and illustrating the impacts associated with resource-extraction activities. We do this because we think everyone deserves to have that information, if they’re interested. Our main tool for this work is satellite and aerial imagery that we get from NASA and other government and commercial data sources.

    For the mountaintop mining study, Appalachian Voices came to us with an interesting question: how much land area was being directly impacted by mountaintop removal mining, and how was that number changing over time? We thought, can’t you just call the state and get those numbers? But a study done by the WV DEP showed that the mine permit data did not match the “as-built” mines (http://gis.dep.wv.gov/tagis/projects/valley_fill_paper.pdf), and we realized satellite image analysis was the only way to accurately answer the question.

    We bought Landsat satellite images from the US Geological Survey and used standard image processing and analysis techniques to identify and measure the areas of active surface mining (cut and fill) in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and early 2000’s. Our result wasn’t as big as Appalachian Voices expected. But besides just the numbers for total area impacted, having an accurate and up-to-date digital map showing exactly where, and when, mining activity has occurred is the only way to investigate if mining activity is related to changes in downstream water quality, and local public health and other social issues. As West Virginians – and power users – we think these are important questions to answer.

    It would be great if the state would regularly do this type of analysis, and make the data available to the public. The expertise exists at the DEP and our state universities. Let’s put that expertise to work for the people of West Virginia.

  8. bluecanary says:

    In case anyone was curious (as I was), according to his CV, Dr. Hendryx has published 94 papers and 17 of them are related to mining. The majority of his work appears to be about mental health.

  9. CA Native says:

    We just had a similar thing happen here. A local councilman pushed the state to enforce reclamation laws on a local mining operation. Instead of publishing the account of the unprecedented 30-day order to comply, the local newspaper published an “opinion” hit piece on the councilman’s “abrasive” behavior with no mention of the order! At the same time, an anonymous smear campaign ensued: political operative blogs, youtube videos, anonymous flyers dropped on doorsteps, the works.

    Well, the smear campaign backfired — big time; our community if fired up. He’s a bit of a folk hero now, as will be Dr. Hendryx.

    Local newspapers are being gobbled up by a handful of publishers, so I wonder who actually owns this Daily Mail?

  10. concerned miner says:

    bluecanary…I agree that only 17 of 94 published papers have been related to coal mining, but his first 64 were before coming to WV, and had nothing to do with mining, so 17 of his last 30 have been about mining. During most of this time he has been operating under a grant from Rural Health Research Grant Program, for $2.6 M. I’m not sure there is any significance in those facts, but I wanted to clear it up a little.

  11. EnviroSci says:

    Here’s my two cents worth:

    From my experience, funding for research goes to the institution and not the individual researcher. I think this is done, in part, so as not to present any suspicion of bias.

    If all of Dr. Hendryx’s work on mining and health showed no correlation; would we be having this dialog?

    I have contracted a group at WVU to do some water quality studies for a client and I have no reason whatsoever to suspect any bias when they draft their results.

    That having been said, I did “raise and eyebrow” when I saw that Bo Webb was a co-author. In doing so Dr. Hendryx permanently associated his work with what the coal industry calls “anti-coal extremists” (this is no indictment of Mr. Webb-as far as I know he is an honorable person who believes very strongly in his cause). Unfortunately, this association made it easy for his work to become polarized. That is, you’re either for it or against it-much like the citizenry of WV is polarized on the surface mining issue. Having reviewed some of the work in question, it’s my opinion that it brings to light significant issues that need more study and then an action plan to remedy the situation.

    It’s a shame that both sides want to polarize things as either being anti- or pro-coal and not try to affect some compromises that would be beneficial to all.

  12. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    EnviroSci,

    Another view on adding Bo Webb’s name as an author might be this —

    This is PUBLIC health work after all, and Bo is a member of the public who saw what he believed to be a significant public health problem in his community. He tired to raise questions about it, and got little response from public officials — except from Dr. Hendryx, who decided to do what PUBLIC health officials are supposed to do…he investigated this concern from a member of the public, working with Bo to design a scientific study examining the issue.

    It’s a stand-up thing for Dr. Hendryx to then include Bo as an author. I doubt many scientists I know have enough respect for members of the public to do that. In an age of “publish or perish” and many scientists who just want to get their names on journal articles, this is actually kind of refreshing — all the more so because I’m sure Dr. Hendryx knew having Bo’s name on the paper would just get him more attacks from the industry.

    Ken.

  13. Soyedina says:

    The bottom line is that this is peer-reviewed science and there is absolutely zero equivalent response from the industry.

    It is common for undergraduate researchers, working on the research projects of others, to be included as co-authors on papers that they helped to complete.

    Character assassination is the last refuge of the defeated.

  14. EnviroSci says:

    Ken:

    Point taken. Let me reiterate that I was not disparaging either Dr. Hendryx or Mr. Webb. I was trying to point out that that, in the debate over surface mining, associating oneself with certain entities-no matter how noble or benevolent-tend to get one labeled as either “pro-“ or “anti-“. And that label sticks permanently in some people’s minds. I would think a researcher would want to appear as neutral as possible. On the other hand, I can only imagine the indignation of the environmental groups, had Bill Raney been listed as a co-author.

  15. Soyedina says:

    I for one would be *delighted* to see Bill Raney, or any other industry spokesman, make an effort to use science to produce knowledge, rather than use media bully pulpits to simply deny that knowledge without justification. If that resulted in a shared authorship of a peer-reviewed scientific journal article, that would be fabulous. Ask yourself, why hasn’t this happened?

    I know commercial fishermen who have been co-authors on scientific research papers for the same sorts of reasons that Bo Webb was included as co-author. It seems that Envirosci is the one furthering the polarization he is complaining about.

  16. Vernon says:

    Our state inquisitors are attacking Hendryx. Inquisitors everywhere attack scientists digging into truth that reveals the fallacy of their dogma. Galileo, meet Michael.

  17. PolySci says:

    The fundamental problem here is that most people lack a fundamental understanding of the scientific research process. It is well founded in Psychology that individuals will (a) reject new evidence that contradicts their pre-existing views (or, in other words, engage in cognitive dissonance); and (b) accept new information that supports their current “beliefs” (seek cognitive consistency). As a result, the biggest source of bias and error surrounding the discussion of scientific research among the general public isn’t in the research or the researchers, but is instead the tendency of people to try to hold on to what they think they “know.” Given the social and economic impact of coal on this state, such a response is not surprising to me. But, these errors of interpretation to do not invalidate the research itself, but only the interpretation of the research. Is Hendryx’s research perfect? Certainly not. Is it the final word? I serious doubt it? But is it scientifically conducted? Most definitely.

  18. Bo Webb says:

    I don’t need to defend Hendryx’s work; history will prove him to be a great and honorable scientist that bravely seeked the truth in spite of overwhelming opposition from an entrenched and powerful coal industry. That coal industry has used it’s influence and power to prevent any health research by state and federal agencies since 2005 when I first asked then Gov Joe Manchin to direct the WV DHHR to look into the health problems at Marsh Fork Elementary. Manchin wouldn’t do it then and he refuses to acknowledge at least 18 peer reviewed science papers since. I tried unsucessfully for 6 years to get a gov. agency to conduct health research in our community. I went back to the WV DHHR. I asked the WV DEP. I asked Rahall. I asked Manchin again. I asked Rockefeller. I asked the fed EPA. I ran out of politicians and gov. agencies to ask. Witnessing young people, friends and family getting sick and dying in the Coal River Valley and no one seeming to care has been frustrating to say the least. I contacted Hendryx and simply asked him if he would consider doing health research in the Coal River Valley. The first thing I learned about the man was his no nonsence attitude to his profession. He said he might consider it, but I needed to understand that there would be zero bias and that I would have to take a modular course from WVU in order to understand the principles of this type of research. I did that and Hendryx then applied and received the IRB. Now, if the coal industry would like to look into the high cancer rates in the Coal River Valley that would be great because much more work needs to be done. Perhaps they may consider a large grant to WVU and Hendryx so that he may further this work. Maybe Bill Raney could shadow Hendryx and learn the true meaning of none bias, I know I did.

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