Coal Tattoo

Hendryx leaving WVU, but research will continue

Word had been circulating for a few weeks, but West Virginia University researcher Michael Hendryx made it official this weekend with a Facebook post:

I have some news that has been difficult to share but no more procrastination. I am leaving WVU for a new job at Indiana University in Bloomington. I start there on August 1. I will be a professor in public health there as I am here.

Importantly, Dr. Hendryx explained:

We are moving because my wife got a great job offer there that was too good to pass up. I imagine there might be some speculation that I was pressured to leave or something, but that is not the case.

He continued:

To those of you who are aware of my work, please know that it will continue. We are collecting air samples in communities impacted by MTR right now. I am working on more community health surveys. MTR needs to stop because it is harmful to human health, and I am going to continue to work on this, as are others who are here in WV and elsewhere.

We’ve written about Dr. Hendryx and his work many times in the Gazette and on this blog (see here, here and here, for example), but I can’t help but remember his story about trying when he first moved to West Virginia to find literature in scientific journals about the potential human health impacts of large-scale strip-mining:

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. But the more I look, the more I’ve seen and the more concerned I’ve become. And from a public health perspective I really think the coal mining problems we have in the state is one of the biggest health problems we face.”

The work that Dr. Hendryx started — and that he and others are continuing — really changed the nature of the discussion about mountaintop removal — even if political leaders don’t want to hear about it and the coal industry is spending a ton of money trying to challenge his work.