In a July 11 commentary, Rep. Hubert Collins, D-Wittensville, attempted a broadside attack against a new study that found increased incidents of birth defects in places where mountaintop-removal mining is taking place. Unfortunately, he brought little ammunition other than feigned outrage and indignation to the task.
For instance, he accused Kentucky's two largest newspapers of cherry-picking information from the study to present coal in the worst possible light, then proceeded to present his own cherry-picked information from the study.
He noted that the study said "mothers in the mountaintop-mining area had less education, were more likely to smoke, were less likely to have prenatal care." He then wrote, "We all know that those factors themselves — without environmental contributors — increase birth defects exponentially, no matter what geographic area is being studied."
We do all know that, as do scientists who conducted this study. That's why they controlled for such factors when analyzing the data. Even accounting for those factors and others, residents in areas where mountaintop removal is going on experience significantly higher rates of birth defects than normal.
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That risk has grown as mountaintop removal has increased — another fact that Collins conveniently ignores. The greater the exposure to mountaintop-removal operations, the more intense the effect that researchers found.
Collins also quoted a co-author of the study, Michael Hendryx, associate professor of community medicine at West Virginia University, who told Herald-Leader reporter John Cheves, "Technically it's true that we don't have direct environmental data that we can link in this study."
Oddly, Collins left out the conclusion to Hendryx's statement: "But if you look over the whole set of research documenting air- and water-quality problems caused by mountaintop removal, I think we've passed the point where we can say we don't really know enough and we have to study more."
Collins also questioned Hendryx's scientific objectivity, noting that Hendryx said he thinks mountaintop removal is harmful and should be stopped. But Hendryx's conclusion is based on much research he and others have conducted. Collins' criticism is akin to questioning a cancer researcher's objectivity because he thinks cancer is bad and should be cured.
As Hendryx said in a recent phone interview, "Put in context of all the studies that have been done, it's pretty clear that the effects are real, that the health problems are real. ... These excuses from the coal industry are just ways to deny those impacts. There should be attempts to understand them and reduce them."
Instead, the coal industry and the politicians who almost always side with it are sending up smokescreens to attempt to distract from the real issue: Mountaintop-removal mining is a public health hazard that state and federal governments should be protecting citizens from.
Collins wrote, "Studies that lean on bias, personal agendas and preconceived notions undercut these goals by taking our eyes off of these very important missions."
But anyone reading his piece carefully will see that he utterly failed to make a case that this study was tainted by bias, personal agendas or preconceived notions. In fact, his criticisms raise serious doubts about whether he even read the study.
Collins also wrote, "I support a healthful environment. I champion clean air and streams. And I certainly want all of our babies to be born healthy."
If that's true, he should welcome studies such as this one. He should actually read them, talk to the scientists who conducted the research and figure out what Kentucky can do make sure babies in coal regions are no longer put at greater risk for birth defects.