The death rate from cancer has declined across the nation — but not in Eastern Kentucky. There, in sharp contrast to most of America, residents are dying from cancer at higher rates now than they were 35 years ago, according to new research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Of the 10 U.S. counties with the largest increases in cancer mortality rates from 1980 to 2014, six are in Kentucky’s mountains. (Owsley, Lee, Estill, Breathitt, Powell and Johnson.)
So what did Kentucky’s Republicans in Congress do last week?
Helped give the coal industry a green light to further pollute Kentucky’s water with more tons of toxin-laden leftovers from surface mining.
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Congress’ decision to overturn the Stream Protection Rule was hailed as good news for the sagging coal industry by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Rep. Hal Rogers. (Not to be outdone, Rep. Thomas Massie on Friday signed on to a bill to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency.)
The “friend of coal” in the White House will gladly sign the rule’s repeal, said McConnell, adding, “I am grateful for President Trump’s support and I look forward to working with him in the future to protect coal families and communities.”
Some might say that making it easier to poison their water and air is an odd way to protect coal families and communities.
And, because the rule took effect only last month, it can’t be blamed for the almost 12,000 coal jobs Kentucky has lost since 2011.
The Obama Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining lagged in drafting a rule to replace one from the George W. Bush era that was overturned by the courts. If OSM had gotten its act together sooner, Congress could not have so quickly overturned the Stream Protection Rule, which expanded protections for streams and groundwater.
Hoisting a bottle of orangey-brown water from a Pike County family’s well, Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, said that repealing the rule will harm coal communities. Yarmuth renewed his call to suspend permits for mountaintop removal while the government comprehensively studies its health effects.
Many factors contribute to Eastern Kentucky’s cancer clusters: smoking, obesity, poverty, lack of medical care. Even accounting for those factors, the incidence of disease is higher among people who live near surface mining, according to some epidemiological studies, which the coal industry disputes.
One thing no one can dispute: Coal families and communities will be harmed if 120,000 retired miners or their widows lose their pensions, which could happen this year unless Congress acts.
The United Mine Workers of America pension and health funds that are teetering on insolvency pumped $160 million into Kentucky and $511 million into West Virginia in 2015.
McConnell, who killed a bipartisan plan to save the miners’ pensions in December 2015, has been oddly silent about this looming threat. He recently announced that he has a plan for permanently extending health benefits but has said not a word about the pension problem.
So, in addition to high rates of cancer and other disease, chronic poverty and thousands of jobless coal miners, Central Appalachia may soon be hit by the impoverishment of coal-industry retirees and their dependents — many suffering from mining-related disease and injuries.
It would be an odd way to thank a region that overwhelmingly cast its votes for President Donald Trump, even as his Democratic opponent promised to save the miners’ pensions.