West Virginians Raise Alarm as Research Links Coal Mining to Cancer, Birth Defects

Published on truthout (first on YES! Magazine), by Erin L. McCoy, March 1, 2014.

In the middle of a sentence, Gary Bone has to stop and gasp. “I lose my breath,” he tells me through the phone.

Bone is 56 and suffers from asbestosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and black lung. These aren’t the only remnants of nearly 20 years working in the coal mines of West Virginia. A scar on his back marks the spot where three discs were removed from his spine after a rock fell on him. 

“Any kind of injuries you can imagine, a coal mine’s going to have it,” Bone says. “I’ve seen people that’s got their eye put out, fingers mashed up, whole lot of cuts, whole lot of back injuries. Back injuries are one of the most visible things.”

Bone isn’t the only miner with stories like these. Junior Walk, an outreach coordinator with the anti-mining nonprofit organization Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW), says his grandfather survived several injuries in the mines.

“He broke his back twice in two different rock falls underground, where the ceiling just collapsed in on him. Broke his legs once—both of his legs—getting run over by a man trip, which is how they transport you in and out of the coal mine,” Walk says. “He made me swear to him when I was a kid that I would never set foot in an underground mine.”

Today, Walk’s grandfather has black lung, and Bone’s mobility is severely limited. The biggest disasters of coal mining certainly make the news—like the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in 2010, which killed 29 men and shook the ground beneath the house where Walk grew up. But a growing body of research suggests that the invisible threats that cause many miners to retire early—the respiratory problems, the cancer, the chronic disease—also debilitate and kill an untold number of West Virginians each year … //

… Chronic Disease, Birth Defects, and Coal:

Mortality rates attributed to kidney, respiratory, and heart disease are significantly higher in Appalachian counties with high levels of coal mining, compared to non-mining areas, according to a 2009 study.
Cancer is a particular culprit. A study that compared two rural West Virginia communities, one with mining and one without, found that self-reported cancer rates were twice as high in the mining areas. In areas with mountaintop removal (or surface mining), rates of lung, bladder, kidney, and colon cancer, along with leukemia, are all higher than in non-mining areas. These findings control for other risk factors, like smoking and socioeconomic status.
COPD, which affects Gary Bone, has also been linked to coal mining. The odds of COPD hospitalization increase 1 percent for every additional 1,462 tons of coal mined in an area during one particular year, according to a study published in 2007. Odds of hospitalization for high blood pressure increase, too—1 percent for every 1,873 tons mined that year.
One of the most stunning findings of recent years: the risk for birth defects in areas where mountaintop-removal coal mining is prevalent is significantly higher than in non-mining areas, according to a study published in 2011. The study looked at two periods of time: 1996 to 1999, during which risk was 13 percent higher in areas with this type of mining; and 2000 to 2003, during which risk was 42 percent higher. Six of seven types of birth defects—including circulatory/respiratory, central nervous system, and gastrointestinal—were “significantly higher” in areas with mountaintop removal. This, again, is after controlling for other factors.
Dr. Michael Hendryx, a professor of applied health science at Indiana University, who co-authored the study, has been researching health issues in the coal mining areas of Appalachia since 2006. He says the research left him with little doubt about the impact of the mining industry.
“I can definitively say that there are higher levels of health problems in mining communities, especially mountaintop removal communities, than others,” he says. “To try to pretend that we don’t have enough information to try to act, that we don’t know what is happening, is unethical. It’s immoral.”
Not everyone agrees that the evidence is definitive. Nancy Gravatt, senior vice president of communications at the National Mining Association, points to several responses that she says refute the results of studies like Hendryx’s. One study by Dr. Jonathan Borak, et al., concludes that coal mining isn’t an independent risk factor for increased mortality in the Appalachian region and points to other factors such as obesity and poverty. Borak’s paper was reportedly funded by the National Mining Association, though Borak has maintained his opinions are not for hire.
Representatives of coal company Alpha Natural Resources did not respond to interview requests for this article.

An Environment Built by Coal: … //

… Science and Community:

Local groups have generally advocated for greater awareness about coal mining’s health impacts in three ways: community education, policy work, and direct action.
In 2013, OVEC partnered with the Southern Appalachian Labor School to host a series of public meetings in Fayette County, W.V., to educate people about the impacts of coal mining.
These meetings inspired a group of citizens to organize a study in their area with Hendryx’s help. About 45 people were surveyed for self-reported illnesses. Although the sample size was small, Keating said the most important result was empowering people to defend themselves.
“People in the state have been ‘done to’ and ‘done for’ long enough,” she said. “It’s time that people realize that they do have power.”
Many of OVEC’s efforts have centered around raising awareness in small communities. The organization provides water testing around the state upon request, and in the last two years, has hosted a conference to open up a dialogue between people affected by fracking and others affected by mountaintop removal. At least one faith group plans to help Hendryx conduct a survey this year, Keating said.
“There are a lot of people of faith here, and it’s more difficult for politicians or industry to marginalize us when we have solid backing from the faith community,” she said.
On the policy front, Coal Mountain River Watch in collaboration with OVEC and other groups won a legal settlement in 2011 that required Alpha Natural Resources, a coal company, to construct selenium treatment facilities at a cost of more than $50 million.
Today, CRMW is helping to spearhead the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act in the U.S. Congress. The act, introduced in February 2013 by Rep. John Yarmuth, a Democrat from Kentucky, would require comprehensive studies on mountaintop removal’s impact on human health. It has 45 co-sponsors in the House.
Walk is a member of at least three local advocacy groups, and is a founding member of RAMPS (Radical Action for Mountain People’s Survival), which focuses on nonviolent direct action. He recalls one of those campaigns as we walk up a muddy path through Roberts Cemetery, a small island of public land at the center of the Hobet Mountain surface mining complex. Fallen leaves coat the hillside, but when we reach the top, the scene opens up: The mountains are mostly bare of trees. Ahead of us, a thin layer of grass sprouts from a huge pile of rubble that resembles a mountain, and in the distance, a few large machines groan dully. It’s a Saturday; the site is quieter than usual.
Walk describes an event that RAMPS put together called the Mountain Mobilization, which happened here at Hobet in July 2012. “It was pretty awesome,” he says. “We just had about 50 of our good friends go with us, climb up all over their equipment, and lock ourselves to things, and generally raise havoc that day on that mine site, and shut them down.”
The site was shut down for a day, and 20 people were arrested. Their total bail amounted to $500,000. But Walk’s goals were to raise awareness and cost the coal companies money, and RAMPS achieved those goals.

Home in the Mountains: … //

… (full long text).

(Erin L. McCoy wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Erin worked as a newspaper reporter and photographer in Kentucky for almost two years. She is now a Seattle-based freelance writer specializing in education, environment, cultural issues, and travel, informed by her time teaching English in Malaysia and other travels. Contact her at elmccoy [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter @ErinLMcCoy).


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