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Appalachian poverty concentrated around mine sites, WVU study says

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Poverty in Appalachia is concentrated in the communities around mountaintop removal mines, and people living in those areas suffer greater risk of early deaths, according to a new scientific paper by a West Virginia University researcher.

Michael Hendryx, an associate professor in the WVU Department of Community Medicine, compared data on poverty, mortality and mining in counties in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. He was trying to determine if residents near mountaintop removal mines experience greater poverty and higher death rates compared to other kinds of mining or other areas of Appalachia.

"Mountaintop mining areas had significantly higher mortality rates, total poverty rates and child poverty rates every year compared to other ... counties," Hendryx wrote in his paper, which appears in the current issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Health Disparities Research and Practice. "Both poverty and mountaintop mining were independently associated with age-adjusted mortality rates."

The new study comes on the heels of another paper Hendryx co-authored with Melissa Ahern of Washington State University, revealing that residents near mountaintop removal mines suffer greater birth defect rates than those living near other mining or no mining at all.

Hendryx and Ahern, along with a collection of colleagues, have published a series of papers examining possible links between mountaintop removal and various illnesses. Collectively, the papers have given weight to citizen complaints about coal's impact on public health. Anti-mountaintop removal activists point to the research to show that the issue isn't just about mining effects on salamanders, mayflies or isolated mountain streams.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials have also cited the new research, mentioning it last week in issuing new water quality guidance meant to try to reduce the pollution downstream from large-scale mining operations.

"Possible human health impacts from coal mining activities have also been documented, including peer-reviewed public health literature that has preliminarily identified associations between increases in surface coal mining activities and increasing rates of cancer, birth defects, and other health problems in Appalachian communities," EPA said in its new guidance document.

Coal industry officials and coalfield political leaders have blasted the EPA guidance, and are working in the courts and Congress to block the federal agency's actions.

"With this guidance document, EPA has not only appointed itself judge, jury and executioner, but has also deemed itself Almighty God," said Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va. "While EPA goes to great pains to state this guidance is not legally binding, we are all too aware that it will use it as a club to subdue all parties involved in the permitting process to its will."

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said, "EPA has been very callous in their approach to preserving the good jobs that we have and are trying to keep."

But in his new study, Hendryx reports that poverty rates in mountaintop removal communities were "significantly higher in every year 2000-2007 compared to other areas."

"This was true for both total and child poverty rates, and when the comparisons were based on other mining or on other Appalachian areas," Hendryx reported. "Age-adjusted mortality rates were also significantly higher every year 2000-2007 in [mountaintop removal] areas for both comparisons."

Hendryx wrote that his study does not attempt to determine whether mountaintop removal causes poverty, though he says the effects of mining "on such factors as depressed property values, employment declines and volatility, and foregone alternative economic opportunities" have been identified by other scholars.

"Rather, the study establishes the simple fact that MTM [mountaintop mining] areas have higher poverty," Hendryx wrote. "Thus, residents of these areas are faced with the combined risks of differential exposures to potential environmental hazards in the context of socioeconomic vulnerability."

Hendryx acknowledges that, "biological mechanisms by which pollution from MTM may impact health are not assessed in this study, and in general are poorly understood.

"Given the evidence for impaired air and water quality involving multiple chemicals (e.g., explosive chemicals, diesel fuels, silica, coal itself and its trace elements), and the evidence for health disparities that include multiple disease states including cancer, heart disease, lung disease and kidney disease, it may be that exposure effects vary across settings," he wrote. "One community may be faced with toxic dust from explosives and overburden at a MTM site, while another may experience contaminated water from coal processing or mine drainage. It remains an important next research step to identify personal levels of exposures, doses and resulting biological impacts."

Hendryx noted that the National Institutes of Health has targeted Appalachia as a priority area for reducing and eliminating poverty and health disparities in the United States.

"For these efforts to succeed, we will need to address both socioeconomic and potential environmental risks faced by area residents," Hendryx wrote.

"Even in the face of uncertainty regarding individual-level environmental exposures, prudent and reasonable efforts to reduce environmental risks can include stricter monitoring and enforcement of air and water quality standards, and restrictions on MTM practices to ensure that they occur only when adequate environmental quality standards can be met during mining and post-mining reclamation activities," Hendryx wrote. "Efforts to reduce poverty can include economic diversification and job creation programs; investments in K-12, vocational, college, and adult education; and modifications to tax structure to divert public dollars to geographic areas of greatest need.

"These efforts become even more important when we consider that coal reserves in central Appalachia are expected to peak and production to enter permanent decline within the next few years, further reducing coal's economic contributions to the region."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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