Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
No apparent health disparity exists in Appalachia except in areas where mountaintop removal is occurring, said Michael Hendryx, professor at the School of Public Health at Indiana University, during a lecture Thursday at the University of Kentucky. Hendrix's lecture, "Mountaintop Mining and Public Health," examined scientific research—conducted by him and others—into health effects in Appalachia since large-scale mountaintop removal was introduced in the 1990s. Hendrix, who was part of a 2010 study that called for an end of mountaintop removal, did most of his research in West Virginia.
Hendrix presented data comparing Appalachian areas that have mountaintop removal with Appalachian areas without it, showing that heart, lung and kidney disease, cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and birth defects are all typically more common in areas with mountaintop removal. Also, air and drinking-water pollution—consisting of both well water and public water—are usually higher in mountaintop removal areas. Hendryx's studies have established correlations, but not causation, which is much more difficult.
Hendryx said politicians have stood in the way of eliminating mountaintop removal, despite plenty of scientific evidence of its negative impact on public health. "It's surprising the political and economic power that the coal industry still has," he said. "It doesn't produce the jobs that it used to. It's clearly in decline. Yet it seems to me that politicians will still fall all over each to see who's more pro-coal, and that still seems to influence voters."
While some have called efforts for clean energy a "war on coal," Hendryx argues that coal-depressed communities can find other ways to improve local economies. "Some of the regions have coal; some don't," he said. "They're hilly, they're forested, they're rural . . . the places that didn't have coal developed other ways for people to make a living. . . . If you look at the data, it's clear that the areas that have the heaviest mining have the highest unemployment rates, the highest poverty rates, the lowest income levels. The other areas that didn't have coal developed better alternatives to generate better economies."
Asked for a reply, Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said in an email, “Anti-coal ideologue Michael Hendryx continues his road show against coal production and use by, once again, committing sins of commission in discussing his research. He won’t tell you that he gathers his data by employing environmental groups, like Restore Eden, to do his interviews, so should we expect any result than one that agrees with this anti-coal agenda?"