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Mountaintop Mining: Crisis in Appalachia

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, hea …

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