Report disputes health and mountaintop mining link

March 21, 2012

A report published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health and funded by the National Mining Association (NMA) disputes a series of West Virginia University studies that have attempted to link mountaintop removal to premature deaths. However, the report by Yale University researcher Dr. Jonathan Borak and his co-authors also concluded that coal mining’s role in public health problems in the coalfields remains unclear.

During the last five years, West Virginia University researcher Michael Hendryx and various co-authors have published a series of 20 peer-reviewed studies examining possible links between mountaintop removal and various illnesses.

The Charleston Gazette reported that Hendryx has not pinpointed an exact cause and has not yet published work that tries to connect specific pollutants to health impacts. Instead, his work has linked health and coal-mining data to show, among other things, that residents living near mountaintop removal mines face a greater risk of cancer, birth defects, and premature deaths. Hendryx has not been funded by environmental and citizen groups, but those groups have seized on his findings for support of their own position.

Borak’s paper, “Morality Disparities in Appalachia: Reassessment of Major Risk Factors,” concluded that “coal mining is not per se an independent risk factor for increased mortality in Appalachia.” But the paper also states that the results of a new data analysis “do not rule out the possibility that mining contributes to the development of the social environments and cultural practices that adversely impact health.

“This possibility seems most likely in those specific areas where mining is the principal industry,” the paper says. “Likewise, our analyses do not rule out the possibility that some specific mining methods may have greater adverse effects than others on the physical environment.”

In their paper, Borak and his co-authors said their results “underscore the substantial economic and cultural disadvantages that adversely impact health in Appalachia, especially in the coal-mining areas of Central Appalachia. Such overlapping risk factors and mortality rates illustrate how difficult it can be to disentangle the effects of the cultural environment from those of the physical environment, a difficulty made greater because the two interact,” the Borak paper said.

In his paper, Borak writes that, “to the extent that coal mining is a factor in defining the cultural fabric and socioeconomic environment of Appalachian communities, the coal-mining industry must play a role in efforts to increase economic diversity, develop job-creation programs, ensure access to appropriate health-care services, improve educational opportunities, and facilitate access to nutritious foods and diets.”

“There is a confluence of bad stuff that happens to these people,” Borak said. “It is very difficult to distinguish the coal mining from the culture that surrounds them.

Richard Clapp, a retired professor of public health from Boston University, said that’s exactly one of the problems with Borak’s paper.
“The other factors these authors analyze are so intermixed with coal mining that it would be impossible to tease out coal mining as an ‘independent risk factor’ for mortality in Central Appalachia,” Clapp said.




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