Science and silence: Politicians continue to run from mountaintop removal public health studies

July 28, 2014 by Ken Ward Jr.

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Photo by Vivan Stockman, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, flyover courtesy of Southwings.

Over the weekend, we broke the story in the Sunday Gazette-Mail about something that many insiders have known for a while: The Obama administration put the brakes on some key U.S. Geological Survey research into the public health effects of mountaintop removal coal mining in Southern West Virginia. As our story reported:

Two years ago, Bill Orem and his team of researchers were setting up air monitors in the yards and on the porches of residents in Artie, a small Raleigh County community surrounded by mountaintop removal mines.

Orem, a chemist with the U.S. Geological Survey, was trying to piece together evidence about exactly what caused residents who live near Southern West Virginia’s large-scale mining operations to face increased risks of serious illnesses, including birth defects and cancer, and of premature death.

Since starting their work, Orem’s team has added much to what was already known about the issue: Air quality in communities near mountaintop removal is quite different from air quality in non-mining areas, with more particulate matter and higher concentrations of certain contaminants. Mountaintop removal neighbors have higher rates of certain respiratory diseases, including lung cancer. Also, air pollution particles in mining communities show higher levels of certain elements that indicate the dust is coming from “overburden,” or the rock that mountaintop removal operators blast apart to get at the coal underneath.

“The data is pretty startling for some of these things,” Orem said last week. “To me, it’s compelling enough that a more targeted health study needs to be conducted in these areas.”

However, if that more in-depth study is going to ever be done, it won’t be by Orem and his USGS team. Last year, the Obama administration quietly put the brakes on any new field work to gather data on the potential public-health threats posed by mountaintop removal.

Without warning, the USGS Energy Resources Program in February 2013 pulled its funding for the project. Agency managers diverted Orem and his team to research on the health and environmental effects of unconventional oil and gas extraction, such as hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale region of Pennsylvania and Northern West Virginia.

For those who still read the paper the old fashioned way, there was quite an interesting contrast between reality and politics on Sunday’s front page. At the top left was my story about the USGS bean counters ending this important research. At the bottom of the page was David Gutman’s story headlined, “As TV ads kick off in W.Va.’s U.S. Senate race, coal is still the theme.” David reported:

Tennant Power PlantWest Virginians have seen more ads for the Senate campaigns in neighboring states than the one happening in the Mountain State. That will begin to change Monday, but the primary tenor of the campaign — promises from both candidates to stand up for coal and fight Environmental Protection Agency regulations — will not.

Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant has bought about $120,000 of television time to show an ad — the first from any candidate in the race — in which she, literally, turns the lights off at the White House.

The ad, which the Tennant campaign says will reach 75 percent of West Virginians, opens on a scene of the White House with Tennant asking, “Where do they think their electricity comes from?” The camera pans to power lines leading back to a coal-fired power plant.

“You and I know it’s our hard-working West Virginia coal miners that power America,” Tennant says, as she cuts the power and the lights go out with a boom at the White House. “I’ll make sure President Obama gets the message.”

Seriously, now, while I think the media generally pays far too much attention to campaign ads — allowing those ads, rather than independent questioning of candidates about important issues, to drive coverage — you really should watch this ad:

Here’s the complete text of the voice-over:

I’m Natalie Tennant, and I approved this message.  Where do they think their electricity comes from? You and I know it’s our hard-working West Virginia coal miners that power America. I’ve fought to protect our coal jobs right alongside Joe Manchin, and I’ll stand up to leaders of both parties who threaten our way of life. I’ll make sure President Obama gets the message.

I’m not sure if Secretary of State Tennant and her career campaign consultants have outdone Sen. Manchin’s Dead Aim ad, but certainly this is a pretty cynical effort to pander and another ridiculous move at trying to out pro-coal Rep. Shelley Moore Capito.  This kind of complete nonsense is exactly why West Virginians are so very far from being able to discuss coal and climate change issues with even the smallest bit of intelligence, reason, and forward thinking. It’s a shame that Natalie Tennant won’t show more leadership than this. She’s got a great opportunity to really move the conversation forward about the future of our coalfield communities, the urgency to act on climate change, and the desperate need to diversify our economy. Instead, we get an ad that comes straight out of the “Friends of Coal” playbook.

There are so many problems that it’s hard to know where to start. So I’ll take just two points.

First, this business about “who powers America.”  We all know that coal’s share of the nation’s electricity generation has dropped significantly, from more than half just a few years ago to 39 percent last year. Projections show continued coal production declines — even without the EPA carbon dioxide rules — here in West Virginia and the rest of Central Appalachia.

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But rather than focus her campaign on this painful fact, and on whatever ideas she has for dealing with the ongoing bottoming-out of Southern West Virginia’s coal industry and diversifying the economy, Natalie Tennant is perpetuating the myth that if only West Virginia leaders could undo the Obama administration’s somewhat mild approach to dealing with climate change, things in places like McDowell County will be booming again. It’s a shame that the West Virginia Democrats haven’t come up with a better campaign message than this in their effort to keep the Senate seat that Sen. Jay Rockefeller has held for so long.

Second, while this new Tennant ad is about climate change policy, I couldn’t help while reading David Gutman’s story about it but think about my story on the USGS research, and about this Gazette op-ed commentary a while back by Bob Kincaid of the Appalachian Community Health Emergency campaign:

Natalie Tennant, we’ve got to talk.

You’re going to lose.

I don’t know who’s giving you advice, but it’s not worth what you’re paying them. In a contest with a member of the Moore Family, you will NEVER out-pander to the coal industry. They are past masters.

Bob continued:

Here, then, is my offer in this Intervention: if you will only acknowledge the mere existence of the nearly two dozen peer-reviewed scientific papers indicating a serious health problem in the mountaintop removal zone, I will vote for you. I will do all in my power to encourage other voters of conscience to vote for you.

To be clear, I am not asking you to condemn mountaintop removal. I am asking you to acknowledge the existence of the scientific articles and the health crisis to which they point. Acknowledge the birth defects. Acknowledge the heart disease and cancer. Acknowledge the increasing rates of black lung on mountaintop removal sites.

Over the last few years, though, it’s been pretty tough to get Natalie Tennant to talk at all about mountaintop removal. When she was running for governor three years ago, she wouldn’t even respond to a question from the Gazette about the issue.

This time around, her Senate campaign’s “Coal and Energy Jobs Agenda,” doesn’t mention mountaintop removal.  The campaign website doesn’t list an issue section focused on public health and the environment.

Last month, I tried to ask Natalie Tennant about mountaintop removal.  My query went something like this:

There have been more than two dozen studies in the last six years that concluded that West Virginians who live near mountaintop removal mining face greater risks than other state residents in non-mining areas of serious illnesses, such as birth defects and cancer, and premature death. . If elected to the U.S. Senate, would Natalie Tennant agree to co-sponsor the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act in the Senate? If not, what specific legislation or appropriation would you propose or support to address the risks outlined in these studies?

Here’s the response I got from Tennant campaign spokeswoman Jenny Donohue:

The health and safety of West Virginia families is always Natalie’s number one concern. While the Coal and Energy Jobs Agenda is focused on job creation, Natalie also looks forward to continuing her conversation with West Virginians about how to strike the right balance between growing industry while the protecting private property rights, health and safety of West Virginia families. Natalie believes the EPA must be fair and consistent in reviewing mining permits. Retroactively vetoing permits after they have been granted has wide-ranging negative impacts on the jobs and livelihoods of West Virginians – from the mining jobs themselves to roads and infrastructure projects associated with them. Natalie will work with all stakeholders to develop consistent rules of the road moving forward that promote jobs and take the health and private property rights of West Virginia families into account.

I wasn’t really sure that answered my question, so I followed up, repeating my original question. Jenny Donohue sent me this email message:

Natalie does not support a blanket ban on all mountaintop mine permits at this time. The impacts of mountaintop removal are already under review. Natalie is watching that process closely. Natalie believes the EPA needs a fair and consistent process for reviewing permits that considers the jobs, roads and infrastructure mining brings along with impacts on local communities, including access to safe, clean water and long-term re-development plans for mining sites. Natalie does not support retroactively vetoing permits after they have been granted because it is unfair and has wide-ranging negative impacts on the jobs and livelihoods of West Virginians – from the mining jobs themselves to roads and infrastructure projects associated with them. Natalie will work with all stakeholders to develop consistent rules of the road moving forward that promote jobs while also protecting clean water and promoting the long-term business development of communities. 

Natalie was just in Mingo County last week meeting with the Redevelopment Authority, who shared their concerns that a delayed mining permit is holding up construction of a much needed road.

I don’t know about you, but I guess that answers my question. Study after study points to a public health problem in communities where mountaintop removal is occurring.  In our story on Sunday about the USGS dropping it research on the subject, we explained:

Since starting their work, Orem’s team has added much to what was already known about the issue: Air quality in communities near mountaintop removal is quite different from air quality in non-mining areas, with more particulate matter and higher concentrations of certain contaminants. Mountaintop removal neighbors have higher rates of certain respiratory diseases, including lung cancer. Also, air pollution particles in mining communities show higher levels of certain elements that indicate the dust is coming from “overburden,” or the rock that mountaintop removal operators blast apart to get at the coal underneath.

The data is pretty startling for some of these things,” Orem said last week. “To me, it’s compelling enough that a more targeted health study needs to be conducted in these areas.”

In her new ad, Natalie Tennant proclaims that she will  “stand up to leaders of both parties who threaten our way of life.”  She doesn’t seem to want to talk about whether that “way of life” needs to include birth defects, heart disease, cancer and premature deaths.

16 Responses to “Science and silence: Politicians continue to run from mountaintop removal public health studies”

  1. Rob Goodwin says:

    I liked Tennant’s first statement when she announced her run for the seat that went along the lines of if the current administration and EPA try to take away Coal Jobs then she would fight for them. I think it was a great statement that left the question to be answered, are they actually taking away any jobs? The tone that she has now taken with regard to coal to me is more of a threat to her success than anything else. Voters what something to change in this state and for WV to move forward. Even if she is not saying the actual words “war on coal” the message is still the same old same old that in my opinion is not going to get people to the polls.

  2. mudcop says:

    I’m surprised you didn’t find it noteworthy that the other study you mentioned in your USGS article (Pond et al.) was co-authored by scientists from OSM. I thought it was significant that 2 agencies often portrayed as at cross purposes collaborated on this research.

  3. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    mudcop,

    That’s an excellent point, and one that I should have made in the article.

    Thanks for your comment.

    Ken.

  4. Bill Howley says:

    “You and I know it’s our hard-working West Virginia coal miners that power America.” Well, no. In 2013, coal generated 39% of US electricity. http://www.eia.gov/electricity/monthly/epm_table_grapher.cfm?t=epmt_1_01
    In the first quarter of 2014, WV produced about 11% of total US coal production (including both steam coal and met coal). http://www.eia.gov/coal/production/quarterly/pdf/qcr.pdf

    I don’t know what proportion of WV’s total production is steam coal, but even if all of WV’s coal were steam coal, WV would be powering about 4% of US electricity.

    So no, West Virginia miners do not “power America” as Ms. Tennant claims. WV politicians need to stop misrepresenting what is happening in the overall US energy picture.

    The fact is that WV coal miners are less and less important to powering the US economy. Telling West Virginians otherwise does a disservice to our state and our people.

  5. cw019837 says:

    With all this focus on coal in the midterm elections, you’d almost forget there is a huge fracking boom in the northern part of our state that is severely underregulated. If either of the candidates for Mr. Rockefeller’s seat addressed this, I would be much more inclined to vote for that person, regardless of party, since as it stands neither candidate seems to have a unique platform.

  6. Bo Webb says:

    The ACHE Act should be embraced by Tennant as well as Manchin, Capito, Rahall, Rockefeller and McKinley. After all, the ACHE Act when passed will conclude with an exact scientific health study whether mountaintop removal can be conducted near human beings or not. Why wouldn’t our elected officials not want to know if their constituents are being killed by MTR? I don’t know about Tennant, Manchin and the others, but I couldn’t stand to look at my face in the mirror knowing that something was harming the health of children that I represent, and knowing that I was refusing to act on their behalf. Mountaintop removal has become so pervasive that an argument can be made that to support it any longer is supporting an act of abuse. Tennant should think about that.

  7. Lindagail says:

    I don’t believe Ms. Tennant actually thinks WV coal by itself powers the White House. However, this ad is very effective. You insult me as a West Virginian by stating West Virginians aren’t intelligent and forward thinking because we don’t agree with all the negative things written about mountain top mining. There are two sides to every story. It’s unfortunate for the Gazette readers you only see one. The fact that some of us don’t agree with you, doesn’t give you the right to say we aren’t intelligent! I think you owe the citizens of WV an apology.

  8. Bob Kincaid says:

    Thank-you, Ken, for pursuing this issue in such depth.

    I’m gobsmacked by Secretary Tennant’s ad. I honestly thought no one could ever beat Joe Manchin’s assassination-of-a-piece-of-paper ad, but Ms. Tennant’s done it. She’s going to make “that one” (John McCain’s term) work in the dark. Wow. That’ll show him!

    As far as Ms. Tennant’s spokesperson’s non-response to your question is concerned, I find it interesting that her people are still mis-representing the mechanics of the A.C.H.E. Act. HR 526, by its very operation, does not impose a “blanket ban” on Mountaintop Removal. It halts new permits only. That means that during the pendency of the study contemplated in the bill, no one working on a current permit loses a job (unless, of course, they get “rationalized” by the coal company, itself for economic reasons).

    For Natalie’s spokesperson to describe the A.C.H.E. Act as a “blanket ban” is a bit of what poker players call a “tell.” The only way a blanket ban would be imposed is if, at the end of the study, it was determined that MTR could not be safely conducted near human populations.

    Is Ms. Donohue admitting that her boss suspects what the outcome of that study would be? Does Natalie Tennant oppose the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act because she already knows how bad it is for people forced to live near it?

    Ms. Donohue says Secretary Tennant doesn’t support a “blanket ban . . . at this time.” Does that mean that there is some time in the future when she would? Under what circumstances would she support such a ban?

    Are West Virginia voters entitled to answers to such questions before we head to the polls, or must we take Ms. Tennant on faith?

  9. Dianne Bady says:

    West Virginia politicians refuse to publicly comment on these studies because there is absolutely nothing intelligent they could say without blatantly lying, or without severely offending their patrons in the coal industry who pay for their election campaigns.

    As far as I know, the coal industry funded studies are not peer reviewed or published in journals that require sound methods of scientific research.

    I think it is already clear that MTR *cannot* be done safely around human populations.

    A recent peer reviewed study showed high levels of very fine particles in the air in communities near MTR mines. This could be one important factor for why people who live near MTR sites have higher rates of most serious illnesses, and higher death rates.

    Over two dozen peer reviewed studies have been published in scientific or health journals showing strong correlations between specific health problems and proximity to MTR.

  10. rgriffith says:

    What “infrastructure” of use to most West Virginians would be blocked by banning MTR? The only infrastructure coal companies build is infrastructure for mining coal. What roads would be blocked? Coal trucks regularly destroy our roads without paying enough to repair them. I am grossly disappointed by Natalie’s statements. Earlier I figured she had to make a nod or two to coal to have a chance, but this wholesale capitulation makes me sick.

  11. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Dianne,

    Could you clarify which coal industry studies you are alleging were not peer-reviewed and published?

    Some of the industry-funded work actually did go through peer review was was published in well-known journals … for example:

    http://journals.lww.com/joem/Abstract/2012/02000/Mortality_Disparities_in_Appalachia__Reassessment.5.aspx

    And some of it was presented at academic conferences:
    https://apha.confex.com/apha/142am/webprogram/Paper301769.html

    And, the ARIES project did have a peer-review component to it, as was discussed in this story, http://www.wvgazette.com/News/201304060061

    It’s also important to note that much of the USGS work has not been published in a journal yet — the results were preliminary presentations at academic conferences.

    I’m afraid that it’s very easy to get carried away based on stories like the USGS one, and to forget both the facts, and this blog’s rules on commenting …

    Thanks, Ken.

  12. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    rgriffith,

    I believe perhaps some supporters of this road project are concerned about how EPA’s permit reviews are impacting it:

    http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/2013/06/24/epa-king-coal-highway-permit-ignores-alternatives/

    Ken.

  13. Bo Webb says:

    I believe Dianne was referring to the ARIES Project which is funded by the coal industry. The coal industry gave at least 10 million dollars, (maybe 15 mil) to this project in its attempt to refute previous research of Hendryx and colleagues. The coal industry could have spent less than than they have on the ARIES Project to fund a health study which would determine the exact reason people in MTR communities are getting sick and dying sooner than non MTR communities. This is all anyone should need to know to understand the coal industry is aware that their MTR operations are harming those that live nearby and have decided to continue to harm people living nearby. The ACHE Act should be passed immediately as it will provide the health study we need. And, again, the ACHE Act does not cost the taxpayers a single penny.

  14. Pertaining to Natalie Tennant, Ken writes, “This kind of complete nonsense is exactly why West Virginians are so very far from being able to discuss coal and climate change issues with even the smallest bit of intelligence, reason, and forward thinking.”

    I continue to feel insulted and degraded by the vast majority of WV politicians at all levels who pander to the coal industry. On this point, voting is a charade as to choosing which candidate gets to be the coal industry’s mouthpiece. As your article states, Ken, candidates refuse to directly address pointed questions such as studies of the health effects of coal. And West Virginia has a citizen-participation democracy???

    Finally, a key question for investigative reporting. Why, Ken, as you say, did the Obama administration put the brakes on the USGS study?

  15. Dave Brubaker says:

    In my experience, the “industry” relys almost solely on non-peer reviewed research to support their arguements. So many times I have seen the industry give weight to a “paper” that has been published as part of a compendia from an industry conference as if it were peer-reviewed just because it seems to support what they want. I have seen industry cite student thesis’s that were fatally flawed with errors to the point that it amazed me that the student passed their committee. I have seen industry cite and treat a white paper that summarizes the current state of MTM and discusses no science whatsoever as if it were a classical ecological paper.

    I think ARIES is good in theory (in that more research should be put out there and industry should be footing the bill) and there is some work being put out there by ARIES that is peer reviewed (as you gave examples of in your article reference).

    However, look at Ken’s summary of the three examples in his article he referred to: The first one (relating forestry and MTM) does seem to be somewhat critical of MTM; The second one seems to only be a methodology paper saying that there are alternatives that might reduce selenium runoff; The third one merely seems to criticize the fact that most of the research on health effects are coming from only a handfull of researchers (e.g., Hendryx). Only one of the three seem to offer anything critical of the industry funding the research. None of them seem to be offering anything substantial in refuting the ever growing body of research that points to all of the problems with MTM.

  16. Fred Krueger says:

    There is always a tendency to live in the past rather than the present, and Natalie Tennant is surely following that tendency. New technology shows that we can get clean electrical energy from wind and solar at a cheaper price than from coal. Several studies already show that when the costs of coal are combined with the public health costs, the coal is not worth the price. Any genuine assessment of those costs has to include the cancers and respiratory problems absorbed by citizens as well as the dollar cost on electrical bills. This is not just an economic issue, as soon as we realize the health costs, this is a moral issue. What is the price of a human life? How many people must die prematurely because we are so captive to coal that we refuse to find (or allow) the cleaner methods that are now available to power West Virginia? If it were not for the money that goes to a few, West Virginia would realize that King Coal is dying. If we can live in the present, we will better see the dark side of continued reliance on a dying industry and make those changes now that will prepare us for a healthier future. Sorry, Natalie, but wind and solar represent the future, not a dying and almost dead coal industry.

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