A fourth ARIES-funded paper was published but did not go through the peer-review process. It was published, as is common in academia, after being delivered at a conference, in a journal issue that compiled such presentations.
The paper, by Ohio State University researchers, re-examined the long-standing theory of the "resource curse." That theory holds that dependence on resource extraction, such as coal mining, actually contributes to deep poverty by fostering low educational attainment, little entrepreneurship, environmental degradation and limits on other economic development.
Ohio State economist Mark Partridge and his co-authors, though, found that the data didn't support such conclusions -- at least not for modern-day Appalachia. When they compared poverty data with mining statistics, they found that the "resource curse" related to coal mining ended some time after 2000.
In an interview earlier this year, however, Partridge revealed that follow-up research found that their initial conclusion was wrong.
"Basically, the preliminary evidence that mountaintop mining was associated with lower poverty rates, at least in the short-term, post-2000, goes away," Partridge said in the January interview. "I would never argue that mountaintop removal is a sustainable, long-term economic development strategy."
'ARIES isn't legitimate'
Just last month, another ARIES-sponsored study was made public. A news release from the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health reported that the study found West Virginia counties with coal mining activity have higher mortality rates than non-coal mining Appalachian counties.
The study confirmed some of the findings from the work done by WVU's Hendryx, but the Pitt authors said their findings did not point as squarely at mining as the potential cause for increased coalfield mortality rates -- at least not yet.
"More studies will be needed to understand the complex interactions of environmental factors, personal behaviors and other risks to determine the extent coal mining plays in elevating mortality rates," said lead author Jeanine Buchanich, deputy director of epidemiology at the Pitt Public Health Center for Occupational Biostatics and Epidemiology.
Hendryx, though, noted that his research already was controlled for a variety of other possible factors, including smoking, poverty and educational level, and still found increased mortality and illness rates in Appalachian mining communities.
Hendryx said industry-funded studies often appear aimed at creating just enough uncertainly about the links between pollution and health problems to block government action.
"What I've seen so far is that ARIES isn't legitimate and doesn't deserve to be treated seriously," Hendryx said. "It's clear that the industry is paying these researchers to do work that is supportive of the industry and the industry is going to pick and choose what they promote from it."
Buchanich said it would be shortsighted for researchers to allow industry funding to taint their work.
"While the money obviously goes to the University of Pittsburgh -- every study supports a small part of my salary -- the only thing I have as an academic researcher is my reputation for doing good science," she said. "If I lose that, I'm out of a job."
Industry-funded research such as ARIES is not unusual, and neither are questions about whether the funding impacts the results or not. David Michaels, a former George Washington University scientist who now heads the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, wrote a book about industry-funded research. He called it, "Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health."
Michaels cited a variety of examples -- global warming, second-hand smoke, asbestos, lead -- where industry-backed research for years created just enough uncertainty to block any meaningful government action.
"We see this growing trend that disingenuously demands proof over precaution in the realm of public health," Michaels wrote in his 2008 book. "In field after field, year after year, conclusions that might support regulation are disputed." Michaels says industry-backed scientists "have shaped and skewed the scientific literature, manufactured and magnified scientific uncertainty, and influenced policy decisions to the advantage of polluters and the manufacturers of dangerous products."
A 'clear, definitive statement' is needed
So far, the only ARIES-funded paper that actually mentioned ARIES was the Ohio State economics paper -- but that disclosure didn't say what ARIES is. The Pitt study's news release also mentioned ARIES, but again didn't explain the industry's funding role.
Dan Fagin, a longtime science journalist and educator who directs the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University, said a more detailed disclosure would help the public understand a project like ARIES.
"There should be a clear, definitive statement explaining that this research was funded by the coal industry, period," Fagin said.
Celeste Monforton, a George Washington University public-health researcher who has followed industry involvement in various issues, agrees.
"The reason we have disclosure statements now in journals is so that the public is informed about who funds the studies and the public can make their own decisions about whether the source of the funding has somehow affected what was being reported in the study," Monforton said.
In response to questions from the Sunday Gazette-Mail, ARIES staffers came up with a standard statement they say they will ask all project researchers to include in future papers. The statement says ARIES "is an industrial affiliates program at Virginia Tech, supported by members that include companies in the energy sector." It points readers to the ARIES website for more information.
Later this month, ARIES will host a five-day meeting in Charleston, where researchers funded by the project will present some of their results. Nearly 70 papers are on the agenda, and ARIES plans to publish a compilation of the results, in cooperation with the Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration.
Craynon said ARIES set up a process for peer-review of the presentations but that the process is voluntary, and about two dozen of the authors declined to have their work reviewed by other scientists before it was published.
Craynon said some of the ARIES research expected to be released at the conference will highlight questions about previous scientific papers that led to the EPA's focus on electrical conductivity as a measure of mining's impact on water quality in Appalachia.
"Some of the results may not be universal and may not be universally applicable," Craynon said. "I think we're finding a little bit of a mixed bag. There's still room for more research. There's a lot of good work out there."
The agenda for the April 14-18 symposium also includes plenary sessions where "invited government and corporate leaders will share their perspectives on the importance of energy and the environment to their states and the nation." The program says, "The discussions will bring a perspective on the need for good science to inform policies and decisions."
Plenary session speakers include Randy Huffman, secretary of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection; Gene Kitts, a senior vice president of Alpha Natural Resources; and Bruce Baine, a vice president of the Edison Electric Institute, a utility industry group.
In previous interviews, Karmis and Craynon said they also hoped to have leaders of local citizens or environmental groups take part in the event, to offer their perspective about mining's impact on their communities. The program included no such speakers and, in an email message last week, Craynon confirmed, "No citizens groups are presenting.
"We determined it was better to meet with the citizens separately," Craynon said, "so that their concerns don't get shortchanged."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.