Coal Tattoo

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.