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Study finds toxins from mountaintop coal mining sites

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A mountaintop removal mining site at Kayford Mountain, W.Va. with Coal River Mountain, left, in the background.

Jeff Gentner/AP file

The U.S. Geological Survey has found high levels of toxic compounds in soil and water around mountaintop-removal mining sites in central Appalachia, a potentially groundbreaking finding with human health consequences.

After a year of testing air, water and soil, researchers concluded that people in mountaintop mining communities in southern West Virginia live in an environment with significant chemical discrepancies from the rest of the state. This could suggest that documented health problems in the region are linked, at least in part, to the mining operations.

Bill Orem, USGS research geochemist and project chief, said mining areas display “unusually high” pH and conductivity levels in the water, abnormal air particulate loading, and irregular levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in soil and streams. Several PAH compounds are probable or possible human carcinogens.

“The water chemistry is definitely affected by something,” said Orem, who emphasized that the findings are preliminary and studies are ongoing. The coal-derived compounds in soil samples were also “certainly different from soils we’re seeing in non-mining areas.” The air content of silica particles, which cause lung disease, was “definitely higher.”

“You can see that just from looking at the filters,” Orem said.

Orem cautioned that the USGS would be “prudent” about connecting preliminary results with health problems. “You have to be conservative in your statements. It can’t be driven by people’s feelings,” he said. “It has to be a scientific, data-driven process.”

Still, the early findings have been welcomed by activists, who contend the practice of decapitating mountains to extract coal causes conditions such as cancer and birth defects, in addition to damaging streams and threatening wildlife.

The coal industry, which has long denied that mountaintop mining harms human health, appears poised to challenge the results, filing a public-records request for the USGS data.

Health impact, communities

Few would dispute that a health crisis exists in central Appalachia. West Virginia ranks last among the states in physical health and overall well-being, the 2011 Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index found. Kentucky’s 5th Congressional District, where much mountaintop-removal mining takes place, ranks at the bottom of America’s 436 districts in terms of physical health. West Virginia’s 3rd District comes in at No. 435.

Numerous peer-reviewed studies, including more than a dozen by Michael Hendryx of West Virginia University and various co-authors from 2007 to 2011, have pointed to severe health problems in central Appalachia. People living near mountaintop mining sites had cancer rates 50 percent higher than residents of non-mining areas, the studies said. Rates of birth defects were 42 percent higher. Mortality rates were also significantly elevated, even after researchers adjusted for factors such as smoking, alcohol use and access to health care.

“It’s about a 1-to-1 swap,” said Bob Kincaid, board president of Coal River Mountain Watch, an environmental group. “One dead West Virginian for one mountaintop-removal job every year. I think that’s too steep a price to pay.”

The coal industry is trying to rebut Hendryx’s findings. Dinsmore & Shohl, a large regional law firm that represents mining companies, has filed three Freedom of Information Act requests with West Virginia University, seeking evidence of collusion between Hendryx and environmental organizations.

No such bond exists, Hendryx said. “It’s just ridiculous,” he said of the FOIA requests. ”They’re digging for whatever they can find. They’ve made me waste a lot of time.”

Bo Webb, leader of the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency campaign, said citizens “shouldn’t have to be proving that mountaintop mining is hurting people.” He said the health hazards are easily visible.

“People are getting cancer. It’s crazy what’s going on,” Webb said. “It’s real. It’s scary. Is it going to be my grandchild next? My wife? Me?”

Industry response

Another law firm that represents the coal industry, West Virginia-based Jackson Kelly, has filed a FOIA request on the USGS project. The USGS denied the request because the study was not yet complete, Orem said, but once it is the data will be posted on the agency’s website.

“The coal mining companies are citizens too, so everything is public anyway,” Orem said. “We’re out there trying to ask a scientific question and provide data. We’re a non-regulatory agency. Our job is just to provide information.”

Meanwhile, energy firms have come up with their own explanations for the health issues.

When the studies on birth defects first came out, a law firm hired by the industry, Crowell & Moring, put an item on their website criticizing the papers for failing to account for “one of the most prominent sources of birth defects” — inbreeding. Crowell & Moring later removed the memo and issued an apology, but not before Appalachian media noted the firm’s ties to the National Mining Association and coal giants like Massey Energy, now owned by Alpha Natural Resources.

“Their first response was to say that West Virginians can’t refrain from committing incest,” said Kincaid. “That’s what we’ve come to expect from the coal industries. They absolutely refuse to deal with the reality of what they’re doing.”

“The alert highlighted six scientific factors that the [WVU] study of birth defects in mountaintop mining communities failed to adequately address,” Nicole Quigley, Crowell & Moring’s public relations director, said in a statement at the time. “We did not intend to offend, and apologize for any offense taken.”

Coal mining is not “per se an independent risk factor for increased mortality in Appalachia,” concludes Dr. Jonathan Borak, professor of epidemiology and medicine at Yale University, in a paper funded by the National Mining Association. Borak said poor health in Appalachia was caused by “a very marked cultural problem” characteristic of low-income coal-mining communities.

“Not that these people are inherently defective or stupid or anything else,” Borak said in a phone interview. “They’re just in very unsupportive environments.”

Borak said the coal mining industry “creates a culture” that contributes to a society with low income, little health insurance, less education, high unemployment, heavy smoking and obesity.

Asked why his paper was funded by the mining group rather than Yale, Borak said he would have had to undergo a “very complicated grant application process” otherwise. “Yale doesn’t pay salary to do what you want to do,” Borak said. “I had to pay the rent.”

Carol Raulston, senior vice president of communications at the National Mining Association, sees no “direct connection” between coal mining and sickness.

“People with lower incomes have poor health care. They have poor diets. They have a lot of issues that continue to cause bad health,” Raulston said. “You have very similar health outcomes in Detroit. But no one’s talking about putting a moratorium on automobile production. A lot of it is related to poverty.”

Coal cult control

Webb, the activist, said central Appalachia does suffer from a cultural problem — acquiescence to the coal industry. “West Virginia is not a democracy,” Webb said. “Everyone is beholden to, owned by, bows down to the coal industry.”

Activists have asked Congress to place a moratorium on mountaintop-removal permitting until comprehensive health studies are completed. The Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act, sponsored by 15 House members, is supported by environmental groups Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards.

Bill co-sponsor Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., originally from Harlan County, Ky., dismissed the coal industry’s attempts to invalidate the work of Hendryx and other researchers.

“I’m a microbiologist. I have a master’s degree in public health,” Slaughter said. “I don’t believe it.”

Yet Slaughter said there was “zero” chance the bill could pass in the Republican-controlled House, especially with the Appalachian representatives’ pro-industry leanings. “There’s no question that the mining interests really own the place,” Slaughter said. “I don’t see sudden reversal of that.”

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the top recipient of campaign contributions from the mining industry in both the 2010 and 2012 election cycles is Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who received $298,098 for 2010 and more than $275,000 so far for 2012. In the House, Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) is the top recipient with more than $280,000 in this election cycle so far.

Manchin and McKinley did not respond to interview requests Thursday from the Center for Public Integrity.

Sick and stuck

Asked how legislators might be convinced to halt mountaintop mining, Slaughter said that “elections matter.”

But Webb said most of his neighbors were reluctant to speak against the coal companies. “They’re told, ‘If you step up and your nephew, cousin or son works for the coal company, they’ll get fired,’ ‘’ he said. “They just ramp up the heat on the citizens, and they clam up.”

Webb, a Vietnam War veteran and sixth-generation native of West Virginia’s Coal River Valley, comes from a family of miners. When he began fighting against mountaintop removal, Webb said, he became “hated” by neighbors and cousins who thought he was threatening their jobs. He said some locals tried to run him over with a car in 2005.

“They just don’t want to believe it. They think mountains are forever and coal is forever,” Webb said. “They refuse to look at the data.”

Coal River Mountain Watch spearheaded a renewable energy campaign in 2009, proposing a wind farm as an alternative to mining on Coal River Mountain. Webb said the project showed that wind farms could bring in over $1.2 million of sustainable revenue to the valley annually. In contrast, he said, mountaintop mining would produce an estimated $32,000 a year for a maximum of 11 years, after which there would be no coal left. The project failed.

Three mountaintop removal permits have already been approved on Coal River Mountain.

“The county commissioners actually cried with tears and said, ‘The coal industry has been so good to us,’ ” Webb said. “But the coal company is going to take their jobs. They’re down to the last piece of coal. They’re going to walk out and our people are going to be left with nothing but sickness.”

Holly Clark, another supporter of the reform campaign, became concerned over coal mining’s impact on her community’s health. “I’m sitting in church listening week after week about all the cancer and tumors,” said Clark, from Fayetteville, W.Va. “I just wanted to do something.”

Other residents of Appalachia seem unlikely to push for change — unless the health risks become undeniable. Activists hope the USGS data will have that effect.

“We don’t see this as a Democratic or Republican issue. We see this as a human rights issue,” Kincaid said. “Appalachia cannot afford to wait. We’ve been sacrificed for far too long.”