The 1990 amendments to the US Clean Air Act (CAA) encouraged the growth of mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining in Central Appalachia. This study tests the hypothesis that the amendments had unintended impacts on increasing mortality rates for populations living in these mining areas. We used a panel design to examine adjusted mortality rates for three groups (all-cause, respiratory cancer, and non-cancer respiratory disease) between 1968 and 2014 in 404 counties stratified by MTR and Appalachian/non-Appalachian status. The results showed significant interactions between MTR status and post-CAA period for all three mortality groups. These differences persisted after control for time, age, smoking rates, poverty, obesity, and physician supply. The MTR region in the post-CAA years experienced an excess of approximately 1200 adjusted deaths per year. Although the CAA has benefits, energy policies have in general focused on the combustion portion of the fossil fuel cycle. Other components of fossil fuel production (e.g. extraction, transport, and processing) should be considered in the comprehensive development of sustainable energy policy.
This just in from the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement:
At the request of the State of West Virginia, Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) will fund an independent examination of existing research concerning the potential correlation between increased human health risks and living near surface coal mine sites in Central Appalachia. The $1 million study will be conducted by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) over a two-year period.
A recent study — another in a long line of them — about mountaintop removal’s public health impacts is making the rounds on social media.
My apologies for missing this when it was originally posted online (apparently in February), but here’s the link, and the study is called, “Lung and Bronchus Cancer Deaths in Boone County, WV, Before and After Mountaintop Removal Mining.”
Basically, the study found that:
Lung and bronchus cancer [LBC] death rates have increased significantly since the introduction of MTR in Boone County (all genders, ages, corrected for age). All site cancer death rates have likewise increased significantly over time. There were significantly more deaths from LBC in MTR counties than in non-MTR counties of WV. The Boone County deaths could not be completely accounted for by smoking cigarettes … Occupation had no effect on deaths from LBC for males, however, for females; homemakers had a significantly elevated risk of death than their working counterparts.
The study concludes:
The population in Boone County has decreased over time. Other sources of air pollution and routes of contaminant exposure may have contributed to these increases but if so their nature and source(s) are not known. In the absence of other sources of exposure, the data suggest that the introduction of mountaintop removal mining could have affected mortality in Boone Co., WV.
The hillside slope of West Virginia’s Headwaters Twentymile Creek watershed pre- and post-mining, calculated from elevation maps. Photo provided by Duke University.
There’s an important new study out from the folks at Duke University that provides some fascinating new calculations of the impacts of mountaintop removal on West Virginia’s coalfield environment.
Here’s the summary abstract:
Land use impacts are commonly quantified and compared using 2D maps, limiting the scale of their reported impacts to surface area estimates. Yet, nearly all land use involves disturbances below the land surface. Incorporating this third dimension into our estimates of land use impact is especially important when examining the impacts of mining. Mountaintop mining is the most common form of coal mining in the Central Appalachian ecoregion. Previous estimates suggest that active, reclaimed, or abandoned mountaintop mines cover ∼7% of Central Appalachia. While this is double the areal extent of development in the ecoregion (estimated to occupy <3% of the land area), the impacts are far more extensive than areal estimates alone can convey as the impacts of mines extend 10s to 100s of meters below the current land surface. Here, we provide the first estimates for the total volumetric and topographic disturbance associated with mining in an 11 500 km2 region of southern West Virginia. We find that the cutting of ridges and filling of valleys has lowered the median slope of mined landscapes in the region by nearly 10 degrees while increasing their average elevation by 3 m as a result of expansive valley filling. We estimate that in southern West Virginia, more than 6.4km3 of bedrock has been broken apart and deposited into 1544 headwater valley fills. We used NPDES monitoring datatsets available for 91 of these valley fills to explore whether fill characteristics could explain variation in the pH or selenium concentrations reported for streams draining these fills. We found that the volume of overburden in individual valley fills correlates with stream pH and selenium concentration, and suggest that a three-dimensional assessment of mountaintop mining impacts is necessary to predict both the severity and the longevity of the resulting environmental impacts.
There hasn’t been a large-scale assessment of just the simple full topographic impact of mountaintop mining, which occupies more than 10 percent of the land in the region we studied. [We found] the impact is deep and extensive. It is locally large and more wide-ranging than other forms of mining.
Another of the authors, biology professor Emily Bernhardt, explained:
We tend to measure the impact of human activity based on the area it affects on a map, but mountaintop mining is penetrating much more deeply into the earth than other land use in the region like forestry, agriculture or urbanization. The depth of these impacts is changing the way the geology, water, and vegetation interact in fundamental ways that are likely to persist far longer than other forms of land use.
West Virginia’s top environmental regulator says studies that have found residents near mountaintop removal coal-mining operations face increased risks of serious illnesses and premature death deserve to be carefully examined by state and federal officials.
“I think it is something that is worthy of a closer look,” said Randy Huffman, secretary of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. “It is something that is worthy of consideration. The evidence that is being stated in some of the studies, that needs to be considered.”
Now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Randy Huffman in no way said that DEP is launching some new effort to take a comprehensive look at the growing list of studies linking living near mountaintop removal to greater risk of serious illnesses and premature death. And note the comment from DEP communications director Kelley Gillenwater that “there is currently no conclusive data that would result in changes to the permit application review process.”
Moreover, if what the good folks organizing “The People’s Foot” event on Monday are looking for is an announcement that Randy Huffman has ordered his Division of Mining and Reclamation to stop issuing new mountaintop removal permits effective immediately … well, that’s just not going to happen. Don’t look for Randy to be grabbing a sign and joining the folks protesting outside his agency’s headquarters next week.
But given the political climate in West Virginia right now, it’s probably about right to say that Randy’s comments to me this week are both a big shift and a baby step. It’s a huge thing for someone in a position of authority — someone who works for a very pro-coal governor — to even acknowledge that these studies exist, let alone to go on the record right before a big protest as saying that the science deserves a closer look. It’s a baby step because, given the low bar in West Virginia for acknowledging any science that might in any way reflect negatively on coal, Randy’s comments are a long, long way from any real action on this issue.
So, what happens now?
This was well played by Randy. It’s pretty tough for the protesters to complain that DEP won’t acknowledge the studies when the secretary of the agency just did so. This means that the real action on Monday won’t be at the protest, but in the meeting afterward, when citizen groups will have a chance to make their case to some of Randy’s staff and suggest some path forward.
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.
“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.
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.
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:
West 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.”
Appalachian streams affected by mountaintop removal coal mining can have fewer than half as many fish species and a third as many total fish as other regional waterways, according to a new study published this week by researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey.
Using data from several time periods to track changes in fish diversity and abundance in West Virginia’s Guyandotte River basin, USGS experts observed persistent effects of mountaintop removal associated with water quality degradation and found no evidence that fish communities recovered over time.
Nathanial Hitt, a USGS research fish biologist and lead author of the paper, said:
The Appalachian Mountains are a global hotspot for freshwater fish diversity,. Our paper provides some of the first peer-reviewed research to understand how fish communities respond to mountaintop mining in these biologically diverse headwater streams.
You can read the paper here and the USGS press release here.
There’s a new paper just out that provides some helpful new information about the potential public health impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining. Here’s the abstract:
People who live in Appalachian areas where coal mining is prominent have increased health problems compared with people in non-mining areas of Appalachia. Coal mines and related mining activities result in the production of atmospheric particulate matter (PM) that is associated with human health effects. There is a gap in research regarding particle size concentration and distribution to determine respiratory dose around coal mining and non-mining areas. Mass- and number-based size distributions were determined with an Aerodynamic Particle Size and Scanning Mobility Particle Sizer to calculate lung deposition around mining and non-mining areas of West Virginia. Particle number concentrations and deposited lung dose were significantly greater around mining areas compared with non-mining areas, demonstrating elevated risks to humans. The greater dose was correlated with elevated disease rates in the West Virginia mining areas. Number concentrations in the mining areas were comparable to a previously documented urban area where number concentration was associated with respiratory and cardiovascular disease.
There’s a new study out today that presents the first real effort to compare the environmental damage from mountaintop removal mining to the energy benefits from the coal that’s produced. Here’s what’s reported in the press release from Duke University:
To meet current U.S. coal demand through surface mining, an area of the Central Appalachians the size of Washington, D.C., would need to be mined every 81 days.
That’s about 68 square miles — or roughly an area equal to 10 city blocks mined every hour.
A one-year supply of coal would require converting about 310 square miles of the region’s mountains into surface mines, according to a new analysis by scientists at Duke University, Kent State University and the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies.
Creating 310 square miles of mountaintop mine would pollute about 2,300 kilometers of Appalachian streams and cause the loss of carbon sequestration by trees and soils equal to the greenhouse gases produced in a year by 33,600 average U.S. single-family homes, the study found.
Here’s the abstract of the study, which appears online today in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE:
While several thousand square kilometers of land area have been subject to surface mining in the Central Appalachians, no reliable estimate exists for how much coal is produced per unit landscape disturbance. We provide this estimate using regional satellite-derived mine delineations and historical county-level coal production data for the period 1985-2005, and further relate the aerial extent of mining disturbance to stream impairment and loss of ecosystem carbon sequestration potential. To meet current US coal demands, an area the size of Washington DC would need to be mined every 81 days. A one-year supply of coal would result in ~2,300 km of stream impairment and a loss of ecosystem carbon sequestration capacity comparable to the global warming potential of >33,000 US homes. For the first time, the environmental impacts of surface coal mining can be directly scaled with coal production rates.
Brian D. Lutz, assistant professor of biogeochemistry at Kent State, who began the analysis as a postdoctoral research associate at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment last year, said that while many studies have documented the severity of surface mining’s impacts on local ecosystems, few have quantified the region-wide extent of the damage and provided the metrics needed to weigh the environmental costs of mountaintop mining against its economic benefits. Lutz said:
This is a critical shortcoming, since even the most severe impacts may be tolerated if we believe they are sufficiently limited in extent.
Co-author William H. Schlesinger, president of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y., and James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Biogeochemistry and former dean of Duke’s Nicholas School, said the new analysis shows that “the extent of environmental impacts of surface mining practices is staggering, particularly in terms of the relatively small amount of coal that is produced.” Schlesinger added:
Tremendous environmental capital costs are being incurred for only modest energy gains.
There’s a new study out that takes a look at the state of the published research about potential cancer risks from living near coal-mining operations. It’s called Population Cancer Risks Associated with Coal Mining: A Systematic Review, and was produced by scientists at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine and the University of Kentucky’s School of Public Health.
Here’s the abstract:
Coal is produced across 25 states and provides 42% of US energy. With production expected to increase 7.6% by 2035, proximate populations remain at risk of exposure to carcinogenic coal products such as silica dust and organic compounds. It is unclear if population exposure is associated with increased risk, or even which cancers have been studied in this regard.
We performed a systematic review of English-language manuscripts published since 1980 to determine if coal mining exposure was associated with increased cancer risk (incidence and mortality).
Of 34 studies identified, 27 studied coal mining as an occupational exposure (coal miner cohort or as a retrospective risk factor) but only seven explored health effects in surrounding populations. Overall, risk assessments were reported for 20 cancer site categories, but their results and frequency varied considerably. Incidence and mortality risk assessments were: negative (no increase) for 12 sites; positive for 1 site; and discordant for 7 sites (e.g. lung, gastric). However, 10 sites had only a single study reporting incidence risk (4 sites had none), and 11 sites had only a single study reporting mortality risk (2 sites had none). The ecological study data were particularly meager, reporting assessments for only 9 sites. While mortality assessments were reported for each, 6 had only a single report and only 2 sites had reported incidence assessments.
And their conclusions:
The reported assessments are too meager, and at times contradictory, to make definitive conclusions about population cancer risk due to coal mining. However, the preponderance of this and other data support many of Hill’s criteria for causation. The paucity of data regarding population exposure and risk, the widespread geographical extent of coal mining activity, and the continuing importance of coal for US energy, warrant further studies of population exposure and risk.
The big news here in West Virginia is out of Mingo County, where two local officials — including Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury have been indicted (see here and here). We’ve talked about Thornsbury before on Coal Tattoo here, here and here. And we’ve also got another story on the Gazette website with more details on an interesting coal-bank-workers comp scheme that’s prompted multiple federal criminal charges.
Three elements commonly found at elevated levels in an Appalachian river polluted by runoff from mountaintop coal mining have distinctive chemistries that can be traced back to their source, according to a Duke University-led study.
The distinctive chemistries of sulfur, carbon and strontium provide scientists with new, more accurate ways to track pollution from mountaintop mining sites and to distinguish it from contamination from other sources.
“Essentially, we found that these elements have unique isotopic fingerprints, meaning we can use them as diagnostic tools to quantify mountaintop mining’s relative contribution to contamination in a watershed,” said Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.
The newly identified tracers will be especially useful in watersheds with more than one source of potential contamination, he said. “Because they allow us to distinguish if contaminants are coming from natural sources, fracking and shale gas development, coal mining, coal ash disposal, or other causes.”
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.
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.
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.”
Sen. Ron Stollings was admitting that Southern West Virginia is facing “a depleting economy with coal” and Steve Kominar, executive director of the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, said what should be obvious — but that few of our state’s leaders like to admit:
We’ve got to have an economy for West Virginia for life after coal. Coal is quickly depleting and if we don’t do that, than what have we left our children and grandchildren.
It’s good to hear from folks at the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, one of the few local groups that has really tried — especially under the leadership of the late Mike Whitt — to focus on these issues, and to find ways to bring new jobs and a brighter future to our West Virginia coalfields. And the Buffalo Mountain Surface Mine permit that CONSOL Energy proposes as part of the highway project is certainly a timely topic, as the comment period on the latest environmental study is coming to a close.
Unfortunately, this story goes downhill pretty quickly:
Kominar said Consol has been fighting for the permit since 2007 and believes the EPA is doing everything it can to stop or stall the permit’s approval. Both the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Highways Administration have signed off on the environmental impact study that details how Consol will maintain run off and address water quality issues, but Kominar said that hasn’t been enough.
“… They say it’s an environmental concern, but their argument holds no credence. There’s no scientific evidence to back up what the EPA is saying except emotional testimony by people to say, well, it’s going to cause this or it’s going to cause that,” he replied.
“We live here, we breathe this air, we drink this water. We obviously don’t want to destroy ourselves. There’s no evidence to prove that what some of the antis are saying is actually valid,” Kominar said.
“We’ve done hydrological surveys on water systems prior to mining, during mining and after mining, and without fail we found every time that the water quality during mining was a lot better than prior to mining, and was obviously a lot better after mining…
Let’s be clear on what public broadcasting reported — without presenting anyone questioning it — There’s no evidence to prove that the kind of mining CONSOL is proposing here damages the environment?
No evidence? It’s hard to know where to start here. But there certainly is a lot of evidence in the peer-reviewed literature that shows large-scale surface mining is linked to pervasive and irreversible impacts on water quality.
Readers may recall that I did a lengthy story that tried to describe the history of ARIES and outlined some of the potential conflicts of interest and questions that exist about this sort of industry-backed program. Among other things, that story reported:
Michael Karmis, director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Coal and Energy, where ARIES is headquartered, describes the project as an effort to generate good science by the best minds at universities around the region.
“We want to have a scientific debate, not a political debate,” Karmis said during an August 2012 interview.
And indeed, there was some pretty interesting stuff release at the ARIES symposium. You can read the entire proceedings volume online here if you want. I tried to cover some of the more interesting presentations in several stories (see here and here), and I also did a longer story about the attacks some ARIES researchers are mounting on previous papers that show residents living near mountaintop removal coal-mining face greater risk of serious health problems and premature death.
One of the most important issues here is exactly who gets to sit at the table. Who decides which questions scientists should be looking it — who gets to even suggest those questions in the first place?
That was the whole problem with the way ARIES organizers set up their symposium. To start of the event, they put together two plenary sessions that were supposed to set the stage or describe the context for the rest of the presentations. These plenary sessions weren’t made up of scientists — the speakers were pro-mining state regulators and industry officials. There was no one at the table from any citizen or environmental group who might question the underlying message from other speakers about mining already being over-regulated and EPA being an out-of-control agency. Without an alternative view, that was left hanging there as the backdrop for the whole event.
No one from ARIES has made any sort of reasonable or rational explanation for why they didn’t just invite someone from Coal River Mountain Watch, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, or the Sierra Club to join the plenary panels. Almost everyone I’ve talked to who attended the event said privately it would have made sense to be more inclusive.
Photo by Vivian Stockman, flyover courtesy of Southwings
Next week, dozens of scientists (and not a few industry consultants) will descend on Charleston, for a five-day event organizers are promoting as a “symposium” on “Environmental Considerations in Energy Production.” They’ll be some discussing of natural gas drilling, but the bulk of the event is focused on the coal industry, and on mountaintop removal in particular.
ARIES was formed to address the environmental impacts of the discovery, development, production, and use of energy resources in Appalachia, and is under the direction of the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research at Virginia Tech.
The purpose of ARIES is to engage in detailed studies of the environmental impacts of the mining, gas, and energy sectors in Appalachia, focusing on both upstream (mining, drilling, and processing) and downstream (water, land, and air) issues. To meet that purpose, ARIES will conduct scientific inquiry and research, foster publication and contribute to the relevant literature, and engage in outreach efforts to share and disseminate results. Initially, work carried out by ARIES will focus on the coal mining industry.
But as we explained in a lengthy story in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail, this project is generating some controversy — in part because it’s not always being made clear that the science being produced and promoted is funded by $15 million in contributions from the region’s largest coal companies. Now, as the story explains, there are some perfectly sound arguments behind this project:
While working for the federal government, Craynon said, he always felt like agencies never had adequate science to properly deal with questions that citizens groups were increasingly asking about large-scale surface-coal mining. Now, he’s trying to fill that gap.
“The resolution of complex issues such as mountaintop mining may require radical boldness to break through years of distrust and allow for the adoption of a more public ecology,” Craynon wrote in an article published last year in the journal Resources Policy. “Through the cooperation of all parties, mountaintop coal mining may be modified so that better social, environmental and economic goals can be achieved and the interests of all affected parties can be adequately considered.”
At Virginia Tech, Karmis was already growing concerned about the lack of government funding for research on mining issues. Four years earlier, Karmis had served on a National Research Council panel that produced a report detailing the need for tens of millions of dollars annually in new money for coal-related research.
But there are other reasons that ARIES was formed (and funded), as we explained:
Meanwhile, Karmis was hearing growing complaints from coal industry executives who serve on his Virginia Tech research center’s advisory board.
Companies, such as Alpha Natural Resources, were upset about efforts by the Obama administration’s EPA to try to curb mountaintop removal’s impacts on water quality. Mine operators said their own studies contradicted peer-reviewed research the EPA cited as evidence of mining damage. However, agency officials were hesitant to rely on industry work produced by company consultants for use in litigation.
Well, you certainly can’t fault Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett for not sticking to his story … whether he’s gotten all the facts in or not.
When the latest study about mountaintop removal coal-mining’s potential impacts on public health in Appalachia was published last week, Bill apparently hadn’t read the paper. But that didn’t stop him from saying he didn’t think it was accurate. Here’s how the story read in the Hazard Herald:
Bissett said Friday he has not yet had chance to review Hendryx’s most recent study, but said he is skeptical of the findings.
“While I have not read this new publication, I have read his past work,” Bissett said. “In the past, Hendryx has used information gained through telephone interviews instead of medical records or actual examinations. While the challenges facing Appalachians and their health are well documented, Hendryx’s work seems more connected to political expediency than substance.”
Purpose: This study investigates health disparities for adults residing in a mountaintop coal mining area of Appalachian Kentucky. Mountaintop mining areas are characterized by severe economic disadvantage and by miningrelated environmental hazards.
Methods: A community-based participatory research study was implemented to collect information from residents on health conditions and symptoms for themselves and other household members in a rural mountaintop mining area compared to a rural nonmining area of eastern Kentucky. A door-to-door health interview collected data from 952 adults. Data were analyzed using prevalence rate ratio models.
Findings: Adjusting for covariates, significantly poorer health conditions were observed in the mountaintop mining community on: self-rated health status, illness symptoms across multiple organ systems, lifetime and current asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and hypertension. Respondents in mountaintop mining communities were also significantly more likely to report that household members had experienced serious illness, or had died from cancer in the past 5 years. Significant differences were not observed for self-reported cancer, angina, or stroke, although differences in cardiovascular symptoms and household cancer were reported.
Conclusions: Efforts to reduce longstanding health problems in Appalachia must focus on mountaintop mining portions of the region, and should seek to eliminate socioeconomic and environmental disparities.
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.
We’ve talked before on this blog about West Virginia University research that found rats exposed to dust from mountaintop removal communities showed changes in the diameter of blood vessels, which could in turn reduce blood flow. The research is among the work going on now that aims to explain the findings of WVU’s Michael Hendryx that residents living near mountaintop removal sites face greater risks of serious disease, including cancer and birth defects.
Well, the full scientific paper on this issue is out now. You can read the abstract here, but the full paper is available by subscription only I’m afraid. Here’s the abstract:
Air pollution particulate matter (PM) is associated with cardiovascular morbidity and mortality. In Appalachia, PM from mining may represent a health burden to this sensitive population that leads the nation in cardiovascular disease, among others. Cardiovascular consequences following inhalation of mountaintop mining (MTM)-derived PM (PM-MTM) are unclear, but must be identified in order to establish causal effects.
PM was collected within 1 mile of an active MTM site in southern West Virginia. The PM was extracted and was primarily <10 μm in diameter (PM10), consisting largely of sulfur (38%) and silica (24%). Adult male rats were intratracheally instilled (IT) with 300 μg PM-MTM. Twenty-four hours following exposure, rats were prepared for intravital microscopy, or isolated arteriole experiments.
PM-MTM exposure blunted endothelium-dependent dilation in mesenteric and coronary arterioles by 26%, and 25%, respectively, as well as endothelium–independent dilation. In vivo, PM-MTM exposure inhibited endothelium-dependent arteriolar dilation (60% reduction). α-adrenergic receptor blockade inhibited perivascular nerve stimulation (PVNS)-induced vasoconstriction in exposed animals compared to sham.
These data suggest that PM-MTM exposure impairs microvascular function in disparate microvascular beds, through alterations in NO-mediated dilation and sympathetic nerve influences. Microvascular dysfunction may contribute to cardiovascular disease in regions with MTM sites.
Decades of mountaintop-removal mining may have harmed aquatic life along more than 1,700 miles of streams in southern West Virginia, according to new research. Mining companies have converted 5% of the region to mountaintop mines. The resulting water pollution has caused so many sensitive species to vanish that 22% of streams may qualify as impaired under state criteria, the researchers report.