Does coal mining hurt health in Central Appalachia? Review aims to find out

This 2007 file photo shows the impact of surface mining near the town of Chavies in Perry County.
This 2007 file photo shows the impact of surface mining near the town of Chavies in Perry County.

The federal mine-reclamation agency will pay for an independent scientific review of studies on the potential link between surface mines and increased health human risks in Central Appalachia, the agency announced Wednesday.

The issue of whether mining plays a role in health problems in the region, which includes Eastern Kentucky, has been controversial.

Studies have shown that mountaintop mining is associated with higher rates of cancer, heart disease and other health problems in Central Appalachia, Michael S. Hendryx, a professor who did several of the studies at West Virginia University, told the Herald-Leader in June. The studies were controlled for factors such as high rates of smoking and obesity in the coalfields, Hendryx said.

Hendryx’s work has been criticized by the coal industry and other research.

The review announced Wednesday by the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement could have a significant impact on the debate, identifying gaps in the research and perhaps helping settle some of the questions.

Opponents of surface mining welcomed news of the review.

A group called Appalachian Voices said there already is good enough evidence of the health impacts of mountaintop mining to justify a moratorium.

“If we value the lives of Central Appalachian citizens over coal profits, mine permitting would be halted until it could be proven safe for nearby residents,” the group said.

OSM said it will pay $1 million for a two-year review by the National Academy of Sciences.

The NAS will choose a panel of experts to go through “a growing amount of academic research that relates to possible correlations between increased health risks as a result of living near surface coal mine operations,” according to OSM’s release.

The agency said reviewers will look at existing research, not conduct new studies in the coalfields.

The review committee will be made up of 12 people with expertise in fields such as mining engineering, epidemiology, public health, environmental medicine and statistics, OSM said.

The panel won’t include any active members of the coal industry or anyone from a government agency that regulates coal mining, OSM said.

The review committee will hold four public meetings to take comments from people about the potential health effects of mining, the release said.

The dates and times for the meetings have not been set.

OSM Director Joe Pizarchik said in the news release that OSM decided to finance the review because of a request from the state of West Virginia.

Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said it makes no sense for the review panel to exclude active coal-industry representatives.

The review will focus only on mining in one region, and not other activities that involve moving large amounts of earth, Bissett said.

Bissett said studies certainly have not proven that surface mining directly causes health problems such as cancer.

“What’s already out there is very suspect, in my opinion,” Bissett said of existing studies the NAS panel will review.

Hendryx, who is now at Indiana University, told the Herald-Leader that dust kicked up by surface mining — containing substances such as rare earth metals —is a likely source of health problems.

Research “strongly indicates that mountaintop removal coal mining is destructive of local environments and impairs human health,” Hendryx said.

Appalachian Voices said it was unfortunate that OSM did not undertake the review earlier so it could incorporate the findings into a pending proposal aimed at protecting streams.

Surface mining in Central Appalachia often involves blasting apart steep slopes, destroying sections of streams in the process.

The industry has argued that OSM’s proposal rule would severely limit mining.

The study is still worthwhile because even with the industry in decline, mining will continue for some time, Appalachian Voices said.

The review could even provide the “push the next administration needs to finally make this destructive practice illegal,” the group said.