Traveling through West Virginia, Michael Hendryx passes through two worlds. One has forested hills, trees cresting up and over the mountains, the hum of endless streams lending the setting an organic soundtrack. It’s almost heaven. The other world is the opposite.
“When you get down to the areas where the mining is brutal, it’s horrible in terms of both the environmental devastation and the impacts on the communities that are there,” says Hendryx, a professor of public health at West Virginia University, where he studies the impacts of mountaintop coal removal on community health. To unlock coal seams 650 feet below the earth’s surface, mining companies engage in something called “mountaintop mining with valley fill.” They decapitate mountains, blasting off their peaks with explosives, then dispose of the debris in valleys below. These coalfields cover more than 18,500 square miles—double the size of the state of Vermont—in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Illinois native Hendryx arrived in the Mountain State in 2006. Since then he’s discovered that the rates of birth defects, cancer, heart and lung diseases, and even tooth loss are all higher in the communities closest to mountaintop removal mines. Almost 20 peer-reviewed papers later, Hendryx and his colleagues have built a strong case against the practice as an assault on public health through air and water contamination.
The book Big Coal, by Jeff Goodell, inspired Hendryx to launch his first study. Once he began, he found a serious oversight—no one had actually studied mountaintop removal mining’s impact on public health.
“Basically nothing—nothing—had been done about this topic,” Hendryx says. So he began a series of studies to compare the health of people who live in mining areas with the health of those who live in nonmining areas. “I started finding things, and it just went from there.”
Since the 1970s, mountaintop removal has blanketed valleys with tons of rock and dust, leaching selenium, manganese, and other substances into streams and groundwater supplies. Slurry—what’s left after separating the coal from other material—further contributes arsenic, mercury, lead, and chromium to water. In high enough doses, these elements are toxic to animals. A 2011 study found that children born in mountaintop removal communities had a 26 percent higher risk of birth defects—particularly in their respiratory and circulatory systems.
For these mining communities, the bigger health problem seems to come from breathing air laced with coal particles and other materials. By placing filters with air pumps in residential areas close to mining sites, Hendryx and his colleagues collected dust to bring back to the lab for animal testing. When breathed in, the dust—full of silica, sulfur, aluminum, and organic carbon from coal and other debris—affects the body’s network of vessels that carry blood to and from the heart. And the high rates of heart disease, lung disease, and lung cancer in mountaintop removal mining communities point to chronic stress on people’s vascular systems.
Scientists across disciplines agree this type of mining is bad news for the environment. In 2010, a group of researchers authored a paper in the journal Science recommending a halt to the practice, warning that it was causing irreversible environmental damage. But for Hendryx the lack of action from the government in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence points to one of Appalachia’s biggest problems: poverty.
“It would never happen in Puget Sound. It would never happen on the North Shore of Chicago or in Hollywood or suburban Connecticut. Never,” he says. “It happened in Appalachia because the people are poor and they don’t have any economic power.”
The Environmental Protection Agency tried in 2012 to issue more stringent guidelines based on provisions in the federal Clean Water Act, an attempt struck down by the courts. Hendryx was incredulous. “I can’t believe that anyone really wants to go back to the days we didn’t have the EPA, the days when the Cuyahoga River was on fire,” he says. “Because that’s what we’re facing again.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO
If You Have a Minute…
Do you blog? Go to www.ilovemountains.org and sign up for the Bloggers Challenge to share news about mountaintop removal mining with your readers. Receive a free Spread the Word widget when you sign up.
If You Have an Hour…
Write a letter to your congressional representative in support of the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act, which would place a moratorium on new mountaintop removal coal mines until studies can show the practice poses no threat to community health. Track the bill at govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr5959.
If You Have a Month…
Plan a trip to southern Appalachia to visit the coalfields and volunteer with a grassroots organization fighting mountaintop removal. As a volunteer you might test water, organize communities, write grants, or join a nonviolent protest. Apply through the umbrella organization Mountain Justice at mountainjustice.org/join/coalfields.php.
If You Have $100…
The organization Appalachian Community Health Emergency is campaigning to educate government leaders about the impacts of mountaintop removal mining and to lobby Congress to put a stop to the practice. Learn more and donate at www.acheact.org.