Monday, December 17, 2012

Researcher who linked mountaintop removal, health problems surprised by findings and reaction

The West Virginia University health researcher whose studies suggest that mountaintop-removal mining is damaging residents' health says he was surprised by his findings and by the push back he has received from "industry groups and supportive politicians," Manuel Quiñones of Energy & Environment News reports.

Michael Hendryx, left, directs the West Virginia Rural Health Research Center and is chair of the university's Department of Health Policy, Management and Leadership. He had never done an environmental health study before coming to WVU in 2008, but now has published more than a dozen peer-reviewed articles about health and societal impacts of coal mining in the region, and his name is synonymous with research critical of mountaintop removal.

He told Quiñones he found few studies about coal mining affecting public health, so he decided to do the research himself. When he ran the data for his first study and it showed a correlation between mountaintop removal and poor health, "I said 'Oh, my God!' I was surprised, frankly." Further studies have linked the mines to "increased cancer rates, higher mortality rates and birth defects," Quiñones writes. "He has questioned the economic value of coal mining in West Virginia and has joined other scientists in calling for a moratorium on mountaintop-removal mining." The studies show correlations, not causations, but Hendryx said he feels like he's made significant contributions to the linkage between coal mining and health effects: "I think coal mining in West Virginia is the single most important public health problem that we face because of the indirect and direct results."

The National Mining Association hired consultants to conduct research rebutting Hendryx's studies, and he said coal-industry lawyers have filed "two very large" Freedom of Information Act requests with him. Alpha Natural Resources Inc. "sought subpoenas against Hendryx and WVU and fought to keep his studies out of a West Virginia federal case over a mining permit," Quiñones writes. And a Yale University public-health professor says Hendryx's has over-emphasized coal and de-emphasized other factors. But Hendryx is unfazed, telling Quiñones he will continue his research about the health effects of mountaintop removal and may start research about natural-gas drilling. (Read more)

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