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.