I have lived my 24 years in the hills of Eastern Kentucky. For a good portion of those years, I have known that if I were to have children, I'd want to raise them in the hills where I grew up.
Now, I'm not so sure about that.
A recent study in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research shows that birth-defect rates are alarmingly higher where mountaintop removal coal mining occurs. That encompasses the entirety of Eastern Kentucky.
It's not that this finding necessarily surprises me. I've suspected for years that MTR is the cause of higher rates of cancer, heart disease and lung conditions like asthma among those living here. So this new study, which clearly outlines the ongoing assault on the health of Appalachians, is nothing to be shocked about.
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I'm not even shocked at the complacency with which this study was received by the coal industry and state officials, mainly because when you're in the business of pollution, deflecting the truth comes as second nature.
All anyone living in Appalachian Kentucky has to do to confirm the results is look around their hollers at all the cases of rare cancers, heart troubles, kidney disorders, lung diseases and, yes, even birth defects.
But this new study, based on 1.8 million actual birth records, does not concern the living. We have at least some small choice in where we live, the water we drink and the air we breathe.
The unborn, however, have no choice. Though I know no one asks to be slowly poisoned with carcinogens and heavy metals from the land, air and water, it just seems completely and unbelievably criminal for coal companies to stunt Appalachian Kentuckians' health before they are even born.
Not only does the health of Eastern Kentucky babies suffer, but their choices in life become increasingly limited because of the disabilities they may inherit from a legacy of environmental degradation upheld by a greedy and pollution-laced industry.
This is an outrageous reality. But what truly enrages me most is the knowledge that every coal operator in this state is completely aware of the pollution they are dumping into the air and water.
They are also aware of the effects on human health those pollutants cause. I will never be convinced otherwise, especially after a coalition of environmental groups exposed over 20,000 blatant violations of the Clean Water Act committed by the two largest MTR companies in the state.
Coal production is on the decline in Kentucky and throughout Appalachia. But until the coal runs out, there's going to be a troubling and disturbing undertone beneath the mining and burning of coal — an undertone that we as people of the region can no longer condone, excuse or ignore.
There are alternatives to mining and burning coal. The technologies for renewable energy production free from high levels of produced pollution do exist and are viable alternatives to coal.
We must advocate for options in how our energy is produced. We must fight to save our land and water from a daily deluge of poisons dumped by the coal industry.
And we must support a diversified economy that will help us break the shackles placed on our good health by the coal industry and state officials who condone its harmful actions.
We need healthy babies to help us create a bigger and brighter future for our region. If we don't stand up for ourselves, then we must stand up for future generations, who we know are being attacked and assaulted before they are even born.
I will have to make a lot of important choices in my life, but of all the major choices I will have to make, wondering whether or not it's safe to birth my children in my homeland should not even have to register on that list.
For coal companies to force that decision upon us is just plain wrong.
Ivy Brashear lives in Viper in Perry County, close to several mountaintop mining sites.