Coal Tattoo


As we enter the home stretch of this election season, an issue that continues to get little attention from the local media — and no attention at all from major candidates — is one we wrote about in this recent Gazette story:

A new West Virginia University study has found that dust from mountaintop removal coal-mining operations promotes the growth of lung cancer tumors.

The study results “provide new evidence for the carcinogenic potential” of mountaintop removal dust emissions and “support further risk assessment and implementation of exposure control” for that dust, according to the paper, published online Tuesday by the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

“A growing body of evidence links living in proximity to [mountaintop removal] activities to greater risk of serious health consequences, including significantly higher reports of cancer,” the study said. “Our finding strengthens previous epidemiological studies linking [mountaintop removal] to increased incidence of lung cancer, and supports adoption of prevention strategies and exposure control.”

It would be one thing if — as some political leaders continually try to suggest — this was just one isolated study.  But it’s not. It’s a growing body of studies that continues to present a compelling case that something is going on. And, of course, while the human health studies are the most troubling, the evidence of environmental destruction from mountaintop removal also continues to grow.

Just this week, there was another important paper out of the University of Kentucky, reporting on how mountaintop removal is reducing the salamander population in Kentucky’s coalfields. This is a follow-up paper to one that produced a similar finding in West Virginia.  We wrote about that paper in a Gazette story that summarized the findings of a study many of the overlooked environmental effects of mountaintop removal:

Mountaintop removal is having frequently overlooked impacts on forests, biodiversity, climate and public health, and an updated federal review is needed to more fully examine those issues, according to a new study by government and university scientists.

The study warns that mountaintop removal is not only causing significant changes in the Appalachian topography, but also could be worsening the impacts of global warming.

Authors of the study, published in the peer-reviewed journal BioScience, say that legal and regulatory focus on water quality impacts has led to less research on how mountaintop removal affects forests, soils, biodiversity and the mountains themselves.

“Evaluation of terrestrial impacts is needed to complement the growing literature on aquatic impacts in order for an environmental assessment of the practice to be comprehensive,” states the paper, written by scientists from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, Rider University and West Virginia University.

Another important study published in August reported that the coal industry’s much-touted “mitigation” efforts aren’t really doing much good at restoring streams damaged by mining:

Overall, the data show that mitigation efforts being implemented in southern Appalachia for coal mining are not meeting the objectives of the Clean Water Act to replace lost or degraded streams ecosystems and their functions … and looking forward there is no reason to believe this will change unless new mitigation requirements and scientifically rigorous assessments are put in place.

Commenting on the Kentucky salamander study, the Sierra Club’s Alice Howell said:

This study ads to the vast body of scientific literature demonstrating that mountaintop removal coal mining is extremely dangerous for both humans and wildlife.. Just last week, we learned about new findings that mountaintop removal mine dust has links to lung cancer; now we are finding that its consequences for Appalachian wildlife are equally dire.

Responding to the lung cancer study, Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said:

We have clear scientific evidence that mountaintop removal coal mining jeopardizes the health of coalfield residents, and today’s study is more proof that we can no longer ignore the dangerous impact of this destructive practice … No one should have to breathe the dirty air or drink the polluted water in mountaintop removal communities, but as long as we allow this public health hazard to continue, we are forcing the residents of Appalachia to do exactly that.

Of course, Yarmuth is one of the co-sponsors of the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act, which aims to require more evidence about mountaintop removal’s health impacts before mining permits are issued. This legislation has hardly been mentioned during political campaigns in West Virginia. We saw what happens when you try to ask Democratic Senate candidate Natalie Tennant if she would sponsor the bill.

After reading our Gazette story on the lung cancer study, The Washington Post editorial board commented:

The findings fit into a larger, hazardous picture: People living near these sites experience higher rates of cancer and birth defects.

Noting the efforts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (somewhat mild though they really are), and EPA’s repeated victories in court defending those efforts, the Post continued:

The coal industry and its allies are howling. Skeptics of mountaintop removal, one industry pamphlet insisted, “promote an anti-coal, anti-business agenda that uses environmental issues as a mere pawn to redistribute wealth, grab power, and put forth liberal, social ideology.” The GOP-controlled House passed a bill that would strip the EPA of some of its permitting power. But just this month the Obama administration once again prevailed in court, beating back another industry challenge.

The emerging scientific evidence should cut through the rhetoric. The EPA is right to move more firmly to protect health and environment.

You don’t see much coverage of these important scientific studies in the West Virginia media, and you don’t see many editorials like the Post’s in our state’s newspapers.