Study Underway on Health Effects of Appalachian Surface Mining

Mar 8, 2017

Credit Southwings and Vivian Stockman

A committee with National Academy of Sciences has started work on a study of the health effects of surface mining in central Appalachia.  

The eleven-member panel gathered in Washington, D.C., to hear about earlier research on how mining affects nearby residents.

Bill Orem of the U.S. Geological Survey was among those who addressed the committee. He led a USGS study on the health effects of mountaintop removal mining that began in 2009, looking into numerous types of respiratory disease and water quality impacts.

But that study was defunded in 2012 before it could be completed.

“Unfortunately we didn’t have the opportunity to complete that study so it’s just very preliminary data,” he said.

The committee will look at surface mining in four states: Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee. The study is slated for release in early 2018. A similar study conducted by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is currently under review for publication in a scientific journal.

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An Old Question

Concerns about how surface mining affects the people of Appalachia are nearly as old as the practice itself. West Virginia first regulated surface mining in 1939, and statements of concern and protest have long been a part of the culture in the central Appalachian coalfields.

A series of studies beginning about ten years ago added some scientific evidence to the discussion when Dr. Michael Hendryx, then a professor of public health at West Virginia University, decided to fill a void in the research.

“I looked at the literature and found nothing that was done in the United States on public health problems related to mining,” he said.

Over the course of a few years Hendryx and colleagues published peer-reviewed work that linked mining to a variety of health issues for those living nearby, including increased rates of cancer, lung disease, and birth defects.

A 2009 study found that the economic costs for the region from premature deaths due to exposures to mountaintop removal meant that the coal industry’s costs to public health were greater than its economic contributions. Other scientists began to pick up on the issue and in a 2010 edition of the journal Science several prominent researchers called for a moratorium on mountaintop removal.