Coal-backed research takes on mining health studies
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Scientists backed by a $15 million industry-funded research project are picking apart -- and trying to disprove -- a series of studies that found coalfield residents near mountaintop-removal mining operations face greater risks of serious illness and premature death.
Five papers on the issue were presented last week during a meeting hosted by the Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science, or ARIES, an industry-funded program based at Virginia Tech.
Industry groups, including the National Mining Association, have previously funded work aimed at questioning the mountaintop-removal health studies produced by West Virginia University researcher Michael Hendryx and a variety of co-authors.
But the review by ARIES researchers is the most concerted effort to re-examine the health studies. Virginia Tech officials coordinating the project have said they believe the studies are based on "questionable science" and that ARIES will reveal "what the science really shows."
ARIES researcher Susan Meacham, a dietician at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine in Blacksburg, Va., told last week's conference at the Charleston Marriott she believes there is "inadequate evidence" to support any sort of link between mining and the kinds of chronic health conditions prevalent in Appalachia.
"I think we have a lot more work to do" before such a link can be established, Meacham said.
So far, though, the industry-funded studies have actually found higher hospitalization and mortality rates in coal-mining communities, conclusions that were similar to the results obtained by Hendryx and his partners.
The industry-backed work -- from the University of Pittsburgh, Ohio State and Virginia Tech -- has recommended more caution in drawing too close a link between health problems and mining. And authors of the ARIES papers have called for more research that looks at the type and amount of mining, and tries to quantify pollutants and identify potential exposure routes, and factors out other potential causes -- work that Hendryx and other researchers have already done or are in the processing of doing.
Over the last five years, Hendryx and his partners have published a series of peer-reviewed studies examining possible links between mountaintop removal and various illnesses.
The work has linked health and coal-mining data to show, among other things, that residents living near mountaintop-removal mines face a greater risk of cancer, birth defects, and premature deaths. The studies tried to account for other potential risk factors for those illnesses, and were careful not to say mining specifically causes the health problems.
Environmental groups have not funded Hendryx, but those groups have seized on his findings to argue that mountaintop removal isn't just an issue about mining's effects on salamanders, mayflies or isolated mountains streams.
And Hendryx has argued his studies show the need for action. He cites the precautionary principle, which holds that if activities are suspected of causing harm, the burden of proof should fall on those who support those activities to show the activities aren't harmful before they are allowed to proceed.
"The national goal to eliminate Appalachian health disparities will not be achieved unless disparities are eliminated in [mountaintop-removal] areas, and that means not simply ending mountaintop removal, but creating better economic opportunities and environmental conditions in these disadvantaged communities," Hendryx wrote in a recent Journal of Rural Health paper.
At the ARIES conference, one study presented by Pitt researcher Andrew Potter found higher mortality rates in West Virginia coal counties than in similar non-coal Appalachian counties, results that were generally similar to early work published by Hendryx.
Another Pitt paper, presented by epidemiologist Evelyn Talbott, found higher hospitalization rates in coal-producing counties, again with results generally similar to those from an early Hendryx study.
The Pitt studies emphasized that the findings were preliminary, that there are many more questions to be asked and much more research to be done before definitive conclusions can be drawn.
The mortality rate study, for example, said that, "there are no consistent trends across the specific causes of mortality ... additional studies are needed to refine the nature of these findings."
In their hospitalization study, Pitt researchers also began to try to calculate potential pollution exposures in coalfield communities. They looked at total pollution figures, but didn't try to compare those to illness data.
"As this initial effort is ecological and descriptive in nature, statistical tests for differences between coal mining and non-coal mining counties were not included," the study said.
Also, the Pitt study looked only at state air quality monitoring and federal toxic emissions modeling, two data sources that Hendryx said would not account for the ultra-fine particle pollution from mountaintop-removal operations. The U.S. Geological Survey has been conducting air monitoring in mountaintop-removal communities and has released some preliminary results that linked dust in those areas to mining overburden. Pitt's Talbott said she was not familiar with the USGS work.
Another ARIES study, by Ohio State researchers, tried to identify what toxic substances coalfield residents could be exposed to and how they were exposed. That study concluded, "Fugitive dust in Appalachian coal-mining communities is the major exposure pathway of concern for surface mining operations.
"Further research is needed to quantify the amount of dust leaving coal-mining operations and determine the total content and bioavailable fractions (via ingestion and inhalation) of dust constituents, in order to determine if exposure to coal mining communities is sufficiently elevated to cause adverse health effects," the study said.
Another study, by private consultant Steven Lamm argued that West Virginia birth certificate records were inaccurate in a way that overestimates the number of birth defects.
At the ARIES conference, Lamm presented a paper that was published in the peer-reviewed journal Birth Defects Research. That paper, though, did not mention a Hendryx paper that found higher rates of birth defects in mountaintop-removal communities.
In a presentation for a previous scientific conference, Lamm, who runs the private Center for Epidemiology and Global Health, said that the Hendryx birth defect study was inaccurate because of the incorrect birth certificates, especially at one hospital in Raleigh County. If the incorrect records are fixed, Lamm says, then any difference in birth defect rates between coal communities and non-coal communities disappears from the data.
In at least one letter defending a new mining permit application, Alpha Natural Resources has used Lamm's previous conference presentation to argue to coalfield residents that Hendryx's research was incorrect.
Writing in February to Coal River Mountain Watch's Rob Goodwin, Alpha permit supervisor Robert Britton noted that Goodwin had referenced "possible links to public health disparities caused by surface mining."
"Our research shows this not to be true," Britton said. "None of the studies in the published literature define a causal link between mining activity and any health effect ... the studies have generated no firm answers."
Lamm is not the first scientist to question Hendryx's use of the birth certificate records.
Russell Kirby of the University of South Florida authored a letter about the birth defects study that Hendryx and Washington State University researcher Melissa Ahern published in 2011 in the journal Environmental Research. Kirby also argued that birth certificates are often inaccurate, but said they can tend to underestimate the number of birth defects. Kirby attended the ARIES conference, but did not present any research papers at the event.
In a reply to Kirby's letter, Ahern and Hendryx said, among other things, that Kirby's criticisms did not "explain why there was a differential increase in birth defects in the mountaintop mining areas vs. the control areas."
Meacham, the osteopathic school professor, was the most aggressive critic of studies that linked mountaintop removal to health problems in the coalfields.
In her paper, Meacham criticized the work because much of it was done by Hendryx or by researchers working with Hendryx. More work by other researchers and more specific studies looking at pollution exposures is needed, she said, before any real conclusions could be drawn. The studies so far, Meacham said, "serve as an important 'spring board'" for additional work.
Hendryx said it's not unusual for an individual researcher to be the one who initially does the work that begins a broader examination of a potential public health threat. And he noted that others, including scientists from the University of Kentucky and the U.S. Geological Survey, have followed up on his work.
"It's not just me," Hendryx said. "There are other people. And if one researcher leads a research effort on any topic, that doesn't mean it's somehow open to doubt or question."
At the ARIES event, Meacham spoke against federal legislation that proposes a moratorium on new mountaintop-removal mining permits until a proposed broad government study of potential health impacts is completed.
"That was fairly alarming to me," Meacham said. "I don't feel we have the results in the current research to warrant such an action."
Hendryx says he has no problem with asking for more research, but that he parts ways with other scientists when they argue that government regulators shouldn't take action until there is conclusive proof that mining causes community illnesses.
"I don't really have a disagreement that there is more work that needs to be done," said Hendryx, who did not attend the ARIES event. "There is much that we can learn to try to understand what's going on.
"But we know that we have health problems and we know that the environment is impaired," Hendryx said. "If we know those two things, there is no reason not to act."Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.