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."