Rep. Rahall: “No comment” on coal’s health dangers

February 8, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

Earlier this week, a collection of House Democrats in Washington re-introduced legislation aimed at requiring the federal government to more fully examine the growing science that links living near a mountaintop removal mine with increased risks of series illnesses and premature death. We’ve written about this legislation before here and here.

Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky. and one of the bill’s lead sponsors, said:

Mountaintop removal coal mining destroys entire ecosystems and contaminates the water supplies in mining communities, making people sick and jeopardizing their safety. This legislation will provide families in these communities the answers they need and the protection they deserve. If it can’t be proven that mountaintop removal mining is safe, we shouldn’t allow it to continue.

Yarmuth’s press release correctly explained:

Evidence is mounting that people living in communities near mountaintop removal coal mining sites are at an elevated risk for a range of major health problems. While there has long been anecdotal evidence to support this conclusion, recent peer-reviewed research has examined the question more systematically and revealed compelling results.

One alert Coal Tattoo reader wondered what Rep. Nick Rahall — whose district is home to more mountaintop removal than any other — made of this renewed legislative effort. Of course, we had a long interview with Rep. Rahall about this a while back (nearly two years ago now) here on this blog.  A couple of key points made at the time by Rep. Rahall:

As the study says, additional investigation is necessary, and if these threats are proven, we need to be informed, we need to do whatever we can to reduce these threats. We ought to know more. We ought to be open to exploring solutions.

That blog post continued:

Fine … so what exactly is Rep. Rahall doing to try to encourage or even require such additional studies and investigations? Remember — most of the mountaintop removal is occurring in his district, his home, the Southern West Virginia coalfields he’s represented in Washington since 1977. Has he contacted any agencies or requested a review by anyone of the findings?

I have not yet, because I’m ascertaining as to which are those relevant agencies, and which could do the best job.

Exactly how are you trying to ascertain that?

Just getting professional opinions, which we’re in the very exploratory stages of doing now, as to who can be the … who knows the issues, who has the background. That’s something I can’t say off the top of my head.

Well, that was back in July 2011. Surely Rep. Rahall has had some time to get some professional opinions and find out what agency should be dealing with this, and take some action, right?

So this week, when the legislation was reintroduced, I asked Rep. Rahall’s office some questions along these lines: Why isn’t Rep. Rahall a co-sponsor of the bill?  Why are members of Congress from outside of the district where most MTR occurs the forces behind this effort to protect the health of area residents? What steps — if any — has Rep. Rahall taken to either evaluate the health impacts of MTR or take action to reduce those impacts?

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I’ve always found Rep. Rahall very open with the media, and very gracious with his time in answering my questions. But this time, it took repeated emails and phone calls to get even this from spokesman John Noble:

Don’t have any comment for you on this and sorry for the delay in responding.

7 Responses to “Rep. Rahall: “No comment” on coal’s health dangers”

  1. Rep. Nick Rahall displays a shameful disregard for his constituents whom he is ignoring here in denying meaningful discussion on a ground-breaking set of scientific study -more than 20 studies published in peer-reviewed academic journals linking the tremendous human health impact of mountaintop removal coal mining, specifically, the dust off of these sites. The U.S. Geological Survey has told us in the Coal River Valley, WV that we should not eat our vegetables from our gardens or the fruit from our trees because the PaH toxins, a result from the incomplete burning of diesel fuel used in mountaintop removal blasts, in the blasting dust clouds have contaminated our soils, contaminating the foods we grow! I did not think it possible but I am stunned yet again at Rep. Nick Rahall’s refusal to even glance in our direction. For those interested in reading the scientific studies, you can find them at

  2. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Thanks for reading, and for your comment.

    I’m not sure that the literature has yet definitely pointed to the “dust off these sites” as the *cause* of the increased risk of disease. The latest literature discusses airborne pollution as one of the potential pathways ( ) but certainly not the only one.

    While the findings related to airborne contaminants is very important, I don’t believe that work is done — and everyone should be more careful in how they describe the science here. As I’ve written before on this blog, overstating the findings (or misstating them in any way) does more harm than good, as it undermines the important work Dr. Hendryx and others are doing.

    I’ve seen this reference to the USGS in the activist literature several times, and I’m wondering if someone could point me to something in writing where the USGS as an agency — or one of its scientists on the agency’s behalf or their own behalf — makes that recommendation.

    Thanks, Ken.

  3. bo webb says:

    Ken, that advise was given to me by scientists from USGS and WVU. I will be happy to email you their names if you want them.

  4. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Thanks Bo.

    My question, though, was if this was an official recommendation from the USGS that was issued somehow in writing or communicated formally to the community.

    If there is something formal, official, in writing, I’d like to be able to post it online for everyone to read.


  5. Eric Autenreith says:

    Certainly, we want to have civil conversation based on sound evidence, but really, how much evidence do we need? Allowing the endless unknowns and uncertainties of scientific research to be the basis for inaction makes a mockery of scientific research. The conclusion of the 20 or so research papers focusing particularly on health issues, clearly points to MTR mining, a government permitted activity, as the source of the stressors causing the increased disease rates. We know enough to know that doing nothing, just because we don’t yet know the one or combination of stressors causing the various health problems- birth defects, heart disease, cancers, organ failures, respiratory and skin problems- is essentially running a toxicology experiment with humans.

    What passes for the current “formal, official” word gives us the present situation, where abundant, highly credible evidence, documents that something is terribly wrong in the three worst congressional districts in the country. Waiting for the “official” system to change and “official” approval before considering any information worthy stands everything on its ear, and keeps us right where we are. That suits some just fine- others, not so much.

    Here are some “official” pieces of information for consideration:

    The USGS preliminary findings show airborne contamination of communities with dust and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon compounds (PAHs). Among others, they found anthracene, pyrene, fluoranthene, and chrysene, along with metals and silica dust. The few specifically identified are indicators that many others are likely to be present. The study documents these things present on buildings (geochemical window wipes). Common sense tells us that what has settled on the buildings has also settled on everything in the area, including gardens and suggestions that these dusts and chemicals do not also contaminate the nearby gardens just because the USGS didn’t take samples from the plants, seems at least naive and deliberately obstructive at worst.

    “Results for organics in MTM areas are dominated by alkylated low mol. wt. compounds and low mol. wt. PAH’s (circled) indicating contribution by a coal source, as opposed to coal combustion.” 2012.pptx+Atmospheric+Particulate+Matter+in+Proximity+to+Mountaintop+Coal+Mines&hl=en&gl=us&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEEShw0GR
    Kolker(2012) USGS preliminary results presentation.

    The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) recognizes and describes how these chemicals can harm human life. “It is difficult to ascribe observed health effects in epidemiological studies to specific PAHs because most exposures are to PAH mixtures.
    …Increased incidences of lung, skin, and bladder cancers are associated with occupational exposure to PAHs. Epidemiologic reports of PAH-exposed workers have noted increased incidences of skin, lung, bladder, and gastrointestinal cancers. These reports, however, provide only qualitative evidence of the carcinogenic potential of PAHs in humans because of the presence of multiple PAH compounds and other suspected carcinogens.” “These 17 PAHs were chosen to be included in this profile because (1) more information is available on these than on the others; (2) they are suspected to be more harmful than some of the others, and they exhibit harmful effects that are representative of the PAHs…”

    In light of the evidence that has been widely available for several years, maintaining a position of willful ignorance is making a deliberate choice to ignore the mounting evidence and favor corporate profits over the lives and wellbeing of many thousands of Rahall’s and Rogers’ human constituents. Continuing to do nothing is essentially a conscious decision to continue the toxicology experiments on humans. To me this seems to be a violation of the US Code- “Common Rule” and pretty close to a crime against humanity. I know you think that might be an extreme comment, but how else are we to think of it? Even Senator Inhofe(R, OK) understands this concept- though on a different issue- accusing the government of “conducting illegal human experiments” and suggesting comparison to the Nazis.

  6. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Your link above to the power point doesn’t work, but perhaps readers can find that slide presentation here:

    I believe those findings were previously discussed on this blog, as well as in the Gazette print edition, … And this is the specific conclusion contained in a conference paper summarizing those findings:
    “Based on this analysis, residents of MTM communities are exposed to much higher levels of locally derived siliceous lithogenic material compared to the control. These results will be combined with drinking water quality data, expanded epidemiological mapping, and toxicologic studies to assess the impact of environmental factors in MTM areas on health outcomes.”

    The science on this issue becomes more and more compelling with each study that comes out, there’s no question about that.

    But it’s also important to not overstate the findings — doing so simply provides fuel to those in the coal industry and among our political leaders who would wish to paint the science (and the citizens) in a false light. It’s much easier for those folks to disprove an exaggerated description of the scientific findings on this issue than it is for them to disprove the science as it’s been reported by Dr. Hendryx and others. Witness, for example, this blog post about a paper aimed at taking down Dr. Hendryx:

    And rather than going out on some “extreme” (your word, not mine) argument about a “crime against humanity” — a route that, again, makes it much easier for opponents of action to criticize you as overstating things — it might be a more reasoned approach to simply argue in favor of the precautionary principle, , which is what the legislation at issue here is based upon.


  7. Eric Autenreith says:

    Yes. I am familiar with the Yale/Borak effort aiming to “take Dr Hendryx down.” And also Dr Hendryx’ response- the Yale study was substantially flawed, based on the transparent critique by Dr Hendryx (thank you for posting this link). John Borak did not respond to Hendryx’ request for information.

    Yes, the precautionary principle. Exactly my point- i was just explaining the rationale for people who might not be familiar. About 45 seconds into this presentation video you can hear Dr.David Brown, Public Health Toxicologist speak about research uncertainty in relation to toxicology versus Public Health research. For readers who might not be familiar- toxicology refers to experiments, exposing lab animals to doses of suspected toxins. It is illegal to do toxicology experiments with humans. Such experiments are a violation of US code the “Common rule”

    In toxicology, if there is uncertainty, you do more experiments.
    In Public Health, assessments, if you still have uncertainty, but you can identify a plausible pathway for exposure. STOP the exposure!

    As far as i can tell- the collection of public health studies, along with USGS study along with known ASTDM information about the known contaminants documented in he coal fields, “identifies a plausible pathway for exposure.

    Public Health studies concern investigations of perceived public health problems. The Public Health rule is that in thats if you do not know what to do, Stop the exposure.
    “Integrated Guidance for Persons with Health Concerns from Water and Air Exposures During Natural Gas Extraction” presented by David Brown, ScD, Environmental Health Consultant, Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project. 11/9/2012 3:50 PM EST Length: 00:25:52

    Yes, the Yale study was substantially flawed, based on the transparent critique by Dr Hendryx (thank you for posting this link). John Borak did not respond to Hendryx’ request for information.

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