Coal Tattoo

There’s a new study out from West Virginia University researchers that advances their previous work trying to understand the public health impacts of living near mountaintop removal mining operations (see here, here and here).

Emily Corio over at West Virginia Public Broadcasting reported on this first earlier today, and WVU’s Robert C. Byrd Health Science Center issued this press release on the study:

Research has shown an increase in health disparities as a result of coal mining in Appalachian communities. A new study conducted by the West Virginia University School of Medicine shows that the disparities are especially concentrated in mountaintop mining areas. Those areas have the greatest reductions in health-related quality of life even when compared with counties with other forms of coal mining.

The study itself, published in the current issue of the American Journal of Public Health, concludes:

Residents of mountaintop mining counties reported significantly more days of poor physical, mental, and activity limitation and poorer self-rated health compared with the other county groupings. Results were generally consistent in separate analyses by gender and age.

Mountaintop mining areas are associated with the greatest reductions in health-related quality of life even when compared with counties with other forms of coal mining.


These disparities partly reflect the chronic socioeconomic weaknesses inherent in coal-dependent economies and highlight the need for efforts at economic diversification in these areas. However, significant disparities persist after control for these risks and suggest that the environmental impacts of MTM may also play a role in the health problems of the area’s population.

Authors of the study were Keith J. Zullig and, yes, our friend Michael Hendryx, both of the medical school’s Department of Community Medicine.

Using a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention four-question survey, researchers talked to residents in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia about their physical and metal health.

Researchers used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, the world’s largest telephone health survey systemResidents were divided into groups who lived near mountaintop removal mining, those who lived near other coal mining and those who didn’t live near any mining.

Zullig explained:

Self-rated health and health-related quality of life were significantly reduced among residents of mountaintop mining communities in the unadjusted and adjusted models.

Mountaintop mining county residents experience, on average, 18 more unhealthy days per year than do the other populations. That’s approximately 1,404 days, or almost four years, of an average American lifetime. When mountaintop mining and other coal mining counties were not separated in a previous study, there were 462 reduced health-related quality of life days across an average American life.

Hendryx said that  this study also looked at the health effects on both men and women.  A common belief is that if coal mining causes health problems, those problems are mostly occupational related problems experienced by coal miners themselves, he said.

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This just in from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

On September 28, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) independent Science Advisory Board (SAB) released their first draft review of EPA’s research into the water quality impacts of valley fills associated with mountaintop mining. In their draft review, the SAB supports EPA’s scientific research and agrees with EPA’s conclusion that valley fills are associated with increased levels of conductivity (a measure of water pollution for mining practices) in downstream waters, and that these increased levels of conductivity threaten stream life in surface waters.

“This independent review affirms that EPA is relying on sound analysis and letting science and only science guide our actions to protect human health and the environment,” said EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Water Pete Silva. “We will continue to follow the science and solicit input from all stakeholders as we safeguard water quality and protect the American people.”

The SAB reviewed EPA’s draft report “A Field-Based Aquatic Life Benchmark for Conductivity in Central Appalachian Streams,” which uses field data to derive an aquatic life benchmark for conductivity. The benchmark is intended to protect 95 percent of aquatic species in streams in the Appalachian region influenced by mountaintop mining and valley fills. Based on that science, EPA released guidance in April designed to minimize irreversible water quality impacts caused by mountaintop mining.

Following the completion of the external peer review and review of public comments, the report will be revised and published as a final report.

A growing body of scientific literature, including previous and new studies performed by EPA, show significant damage to local streams that are polluted with the mining runoff from mountaintop removal. To protect water quality, EPA has identified a range of conductivity (a measure of the level of salt in the water) of 300 to 500 microSiemens per centimeter that is generally consistent with protecting life in Appalachian streams. The maximum benchmark conductivity of 500 microSiemens per centimeter is a measure of salinity that is roughly five times above normal levels.

The draft Science Advisory Board report is available here.

Yesterday afternoon, just as I was settling in to watch the Senate hearing on coal-mine safety, a fascinating “tweet” from the National Mining Association’s Mining Fan (that’s their logo above) popped onto my computer screen:

Yale professor debunks bogus studies on the health effects of Appalachian surface mining.

Wow … sounds like something worth checking out right away … apparently, I thought, a professor at a respected university has “debunked” the work of West Virginia University’s Michael Hendryx and concluded the Hendryx studies were “bogus.”

Well, it turns out, not so much — the statement, which was repeated on a National Mining Association Facebook page — was so out of line that NMA officials have pulled it from the Internet, taken back, if you will.

So what are we talking about? Well, Coal Tattoo readers certainly recall the work of WVU’s Hendryx, who has published a series of peer-reviewed studies that pointed to increased illnesses and premature deaths among Appalachian residents living near coal-mining operations and questioned whether the costs of those health impacts are greater than the industry’s economic benefits to the region.

As you can imagine, the coal industry was none too pleased about these studies. My buddy Roger Nicholson at International Coal Group wrote an op-ed piece attempting to debunk Hendryx. The National Mining Association went a step further, hiring Yale’s Jonathan Borak to take a closer look at the Hendryx studies.

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MTR update: EPA study confirms mining damage


Gazette photo by Chris Dorst

If anyone missed it over the holiday weekend,we ran a Sunday story that outlined the findings of a new U.S. EPA report that confirms previous scientific conclusions about the environmental damage from mountaintop removal coal mining.

The story, EPA study confirms damage from strip mining, reported that government scientists say a “growing body of evidence” shows that mountaintop removal coal mining is destroying Appalachian forests and dangerously polluting vital headwater streams.

It’s based on the EPA report, The Effects of Mountaintop Mines and Valley Fills on Aquatic Ecosystems of the Central Appalachian Coalfields, which was released last week when EPA proposed new guidelines to try to reduce water pollution from large-scale strip mining in Appalachia.

I just got done reading a fascinating new paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology.

It’s a real eye-opener about the relationship between mountaintop removal coal mining and global warming. The paper, Terrestrial Carbon Disturbances from Mountaintop Mining Increases Lifecycle Emissions for Clean Coal, is available online here. A subscription is required to read the whole thing, but you can see the abstract (a summary) for free.

Written by James F. Fox of the University of Kentucky and J. Elliott Campbell of the University of California, Merced, the paper leaves no doubt that, even if CCS works and is widely deployed, questions will remain about the climate change impacts of mountaintop removal.

How so? Well, Fox and Campbell attempted to quantify the carbon dioxide released by the huge land disturbance involved in blowing up a mountaintop to get at the coal underneath. They concluded:

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the life-cycle emissions of coal production for MCM [Mountaintop Coal Mining] methods were found to be quite significant when considering the potential terrestrial source.

In fact, this paper reports that mountaintop removal’s life-cycle carbon dioxide emissions are 17 percent greater if you include carbon dioxide from sources other than the actual burning of the coal — emissions from cutting down and burning forests, potential release of carbon previously locked up in the soils of the mountains, and from mining and transportation equipment.

That’s the potential high-end of those emissions if you assume coal is burned in a conventional power plant.

If the industry switches to CCS-equipped plants that capture most of the emissions from coal-burning, then these other carbon dioxide sources would actually account for nearly twice the emissions of coal burning.

As the paper explains:

Notwithstanding the importance of CCS efforts to improve the imprint of coal burning on the environment, the life-cycle emissions also should be further investigated and quantified to determine their significance under coal production scenarios.

In both cases, the current combustion practices and future CCS goals, the terrestrial carbon storage impacted by the disturbance of MCM is shown to be significant. It is argued here that the terrestrial carbon impact be included in the ongoing discussion of coal mining life-cycle emissions and be considered when discussing energy production and environmental sustainability.

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Here’s a link to the Science paper on strip mining

The bombshell Science paper on mountaintop removal has generated a ton of interest among Coal Tattoo readers … at last count, the original post on it had more than 100 comments.

And now, readers can download the paper for free. Here’s how:

Point your browser to Dr. Margaret Palmer’s page over at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Sciences.  Navigate down to where it says:

Link to article and supporting material. Click there.

“Mining permits are being issued despite the preponderance of scientific evidence that impacts are pervasive and irreversible and that mitigation cannot compensate for the losses.”


 Photo by Paul Corbit Brown

That quote above is the conclusion of a blockbuster study being published tomorrow by a group of the nation’s top scientists, detailing the incredibly damaging environmental impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining and the failed efforts at reclaiming mined land or mitigating the effects.

Based on a comprehensive analysis of the latest scientific findings, the paper calls on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the federal Army Corps of Engineers to stay all new mountaintop removal mining permits unless new mining and reclamation techniques “can be subjected to rigorous peer review and shown to remedy these problems.”

According to the paper:

.. Clearly, current attempts to regulate MTM/VF practices are inadequate … Regulators should no longer ignore rigorous science.

A press release explained that:

In their paper, the authors outline severe environmental degradation taking place at mining sites and downstream. The practice destroys extensive tracts of deciduous forests and buries small streams that play essential roles in the overall health of entire watersheds. Waterborne contaminants enter streams that remain below valley fills and can be transported great distances into larger bodies of water.

The peer-reviewed paper, “Mountaintop Mining Consequences,” is being published in Science, which is considered one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals. Science is the academic journal for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and has an estimated readership of more than a million people.The paper was authored by a dozen scientists from various fields — from biology and hydrology to forestry and ecology — including several members of the National Academy of Sciences. A summary of the paper is available here for free. The full thing is subscription only. Updated: Here’s a link to the full paper, available for free. Scroll down to where it says “link to article and supporting material.”

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