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 kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.