Report takes aim at Appalachian coal

ACCORDING to a study released earlier this month by a West Virginia researcher, the health costs of mining in the Appalachian region far outweigh the economic benefits.

Donna Schmidt

West Virginia University Institute for Health Policy Research associate director Michael Hendryx, along with co-author Melissa Ahern of Washington State University, said in a paper – titled Mortality in Appalachian Coal Mining Regions: The Value of Statistical Life Lost – that the human cost of mining, including health problems and premature death, was much higher than what the industry brought to the state’s fiscal health.

"Throughout Appalachia, people in counties with no coal mining operations experience better health, a cleaner environment and greater economic prosperity than counties where mining takes place," Hendryx wrote, adding that his information came from data published by the nation’s Centers for Disease Control.

He noted that while the coal mining industry brought $US8 billion in economic benefits to Appalachia in 2005 (the latest year for which mortality data was available), the cost of shortened life spans related to mining operations ranged between $16.9 billion and $84.5 billion.

"Those who are falling ill and dying young are not just the coal miners," Hendryx said.

"Everyone who lives near the mines or processing plants or transportation centres is affected by chronic socioeconomic weakness that takes a toll in longevity and health.”

He said the Appalachian coal mining areas suffered nearly 11,000 more deaths annually from environmental factors made worse by mining versus other comparable areas in the nation, which marked about 2300 fatalities.

Hendryx took aim at both government and industry for leading the public to believe that coal operators helped fight economic hardship by creating jobs.

"That's not true,” he said.

“Premature mortality is strongly linked to socioeconomic conditions where people live, and the evidence is that those areas of West Virginia that do not have coal do better. They develop economic alternatives."

A WV insider reacts

In an op-ed (opposite the editorial page) about the study and a local newspaper’s take on the report findings, West Virginia Coal Association president Bill Raney referred to the study as a “political statement”

His letter was also provided by the association to ILN.

“It is a shame that one of our native (West Virginia) reporters [Charleston Gazette writer Ken Ward Jr] and this WVU researcher seem to take delight in maligning our state, our industry and its people with misleading headlines and statements that are based on the researcher's personal opinions and subjective suppositions, and include only the statistics that are convenient to their negative goals,” he said.

“It's also disappointing when our university's name is used in an attempt to validate a political statement as a scientific study. It would be admirable if the writer and the researcher would present the facts, if they really have facts, as opposed to presenting personally motivated conclusions – then later in the report and article admitting that conclusions cannot really be drawn from the information.”

Raney said that an attempt by Hendryx to “pass a novel off as a scientific study” was an embarrassment to the public.

“Our state, our people and our university deserve better.”

According to the WVU website, Hendryx was given a Regional Research Institute Grant Award in 2008 for Proximity to Coal Mining and Health, a study to examine the health risks of exposure to mining by-products.

WVU made its own findings of the tested hypothesis of the research.

“After statistical adjustments for social and economic confounds, population hospitalisations and mortality rates for health conditions that are sensitive to exposure to coal mining by-products will be elevated as a function of the amount of coal mined in Appalachian counties, while hospitalisations and mortality rates for other health conditions will not be elevated,” WVU said.

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