The most pressing health concern for Kentuckians who have participated in SOAR's "listening sessions" this summer is whether surface mining is making them and their neighbors sick and contributing to "inexplicable" birth defects.
Their worries are supported by a growing body of research by universities and the U.S. Geological Survey, as well as by common sense: When fine dust released by blasting, dozing and trucking coal coats your vehicle and porch, it's a safe bet it's also coating your lungs and circulating through your veins.
Nonetheless, Dr. Nikki Stone, a Hazard dentist and chair of Shaping Our Appalachian Region's health committee, said she was surprised that mining emerged as one of the two top issues (tied with calls for coordinated school health programs) during 15 recent public meetings on health in Eastern Kentucky.
Until recently, the coal industry's clout has chilled talk of possible links between mining and the region's high rates of disease and premature death.
That SOAR is empowering Eastern Kentuckians to speak honestly and openly about their concerns is a noteworthy achievement in itself.
Stone reported the health committee's findings to an extraordinary gathering in Hazard that included SOAR's co-founder, U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset; Dr. Thomas Friedan, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; University of Kentucky President Dr. Eli Capilouto; Dr. Mark Evers, head of UK's Markey Cancer Center, and Dr. Stephanie Mayfield, state health commissioner.
Asked by Herald-Leader reporter Bill Estep if he would support exploring the link between mining and health problems, Rogers, a longtime coal-industry loyalist, said "we need to know if there's anything to it, certainly."
Rogers and his partner in SOAR, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, should not wait for the final report later this year to seek a comprehensive study of the public-health effects of widespread surface mining.
Also, individuals who think they are being exposed to unsafe levels of silica, carcinogens and toxins released into the environment by surface mining should be able to find out. Utilities should broaden their water testing to include toxins associated with mining.
But we don't need studies to tell us to accelerate cleaning up the mountain coalfield or that the surest way to do that is to restore the forests that filter water and air but have been lost to mining. The many jobs that a reforestation program would create make it a double bonus.
Rogers, who has served in Congress 33 years, could seal his legacy by reforming distribution of a federal tax on the coal industry for repairing environmental damage.
Shifting more of the Abandoned Mine Lands fund from western states that have no backlogs of coal-related environmental damage or tapping its reserves to create jobs reforesting Appalachia would be a tough sell in Congress. But such reforms would have the advantage of economic and environmental justice on their side.
While earlier diagnosis and better access to medical care are critical in rural Kentucky, they can't substitute for reducing the environmental causes of disease.
The statistical evidence of mining-related cancer and birth defects, along with the public concern, should serve to remind us: If Eastern Kentucky is to have a future, the places where people live, work and recreate cannot be sacrificed to an industry on its way out of the region.
Kudos to Rogers and Beshear for creating a forum in which Kentuckians can say what's on their minds, even at the risk of offending a powerful lobby.
When a congressman and governor invite people to "listening sessions," there's an obligation to take what they say seriously.