Frustration sets in after coal mine health study suspended
Chuck Nelson spent his life in this corner of Appalachia, working for years in the coal mines — a good job in the economically depressed area. But he says the industry that helped him earn a living cost him his health, and his wife's, too.
The 61-year-old Nelson blames his kidney and liver disease on the well water he drank for years, and his wife's more severe asthma on dust and particles from surface mines near their home.
Some of his neighbors agree — and say surface mining in the mountains has been a primary culprit for various health problems. Some studies agreed with them but in the end were inconclusive. A new federal study was supposed to provide the most comprehensive review to date, but the Trump administration — a coal industry advocate — suspended it three months ago, citing budget reasons.
Nelson and his neighbors weren't surprised — a previous federal study was canceled, too. The suspension feeds the mistrust they've long harbored for politicians who routinely side with businesses: If the study "comes out negative against the coal industry, it's swept under the rug, and the funding's stopped by these politicians who cater to the coal industry," Nelson said.
Studies and experts agree on some points: Mountaintop mining can release coal dust into the air that is carried on the wind. Debris from surface mines can harm streams, and the coal slurries from underground mines can seep chemically-treated waste into groundwater. Pollution can increase disease risks, but that's complicated by other factors.
"With environmental damage or environmental issues, the problem is that most diseases that we are now concerned about are long-term diseases that take decades to appear," said David Rosner, Columbia professor of sociomedical sciences.
Rosner, a member of the organization overseeing the extensive mining study but not directly involved, said the canceled review would've been crucial. "The science has actually created doubt rather than certainty about cause," he said. "What this becomes in the hands of politicians is an excuse for inaction."
The goal of the scuttled study — by National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine — was a consensus from experts in various fields on potential short- and long-term health effects, focused on West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
In May, the West Virginia Coal Association told scientists that large-scale mountaintop mining was mostly a thing of the past. State surface-mining production dropped from about 44 million tons (40 million metric tons) of coal in 2012 to 14 million tons (13 million metric tons) last year, it said.
Association Vice President Jason Bostic declined to say whether the study should resume to resolve any remaining questions.
West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection said it conducts significant surface water quality sampling. Agency officials shared with academy scientists their two-week testing near a mountaintop mine in 2012 that found no conclusive evidence that blasting affected air quality.
Bostic blames higher illnesses rates on poverty: "Bad health in central Appalachia or Appalachia as a whole is not new."
Neither is coal mining.
In late September, Nelson drove an ATV up old logging roads to Alpha Natural Resources' mining operation, where part of Coal River Mountain is gone. The air had a faint grayish hue 100 feet above the mine. Large coal trucks looked like children's toys on the broad, flat landscape below. On the horizon stood the treeless outlines of three other mines. Some houses stood in a distant valley.
Joan Linville, 79, a miner's widow from the hamlet of Van, says she believes her stomach cancer was caused by drinking water polluted by mines. "We did have well water. We used it for everything," she said.
Linville and others hoped the new $1 million study would erase any doubts. But in canceling it in August, the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement said officials were reconsidering grants over $100,000 largely for budget reasons.
Yet academies spokesman William Kearney said the mining study was the only project stopped, with the group having five others underway.
In a 2016 study in the journal Environmental Science & Policy, Indiana University professor Michael Hendryx examined data from 1968 to 2014 and found higher death rates in 37 central Appalachian counties with mountaintop mining than those without it, after adjusting for age, poverty, smoking, obesity and available doctors.
In a 2010 study in Geospatial Health, Hendryx found that West Virginia residents near mining sites had higher death rates from lung and other cancers after controlling for similar variables. Coal contains known carcinogens, including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, nickel and beryllium, he wrote.
In a 2012 study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Yale's Dr. Jonathan Borak found fault with some of Hendryx's studies and concluded the mortality rates in central Appalachia were related to cultural factors: poverty, rural location, education, diet, smoking and obesity, but "not per se" to coal mining pollution.
Borak's work was funded by the National Mining Association, but he said that didn't affect his conclusions. Like Hendryx, he presented his information to the National Academies, whose study he thinks was stopped for political reasons.
"I think the interference with the scientific process for political reasons is lamentable," Borak said.