A Troubling Look at the Human Toll of Mountaintop Removal Mining

For years, the coal industry has dismissed the idea that mountaintop mining adversely affects people living nearby. But research by Indiana University’s Michael Hendryx provides stark evidence that this widespread mining practice is leading to increases in disease and deaths in Appalachia.

The devastating environmental impacts of mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia have long been well documented. But over the last decade, Indiana University researcher Michael Hendryx has been examining another consequence of this form of coal surface mining that had previously been overlooked: the health impacts on the people in the surrounding communities.

What he has found, Hendryx says, is a public health disaster, with more than a thousand extra deaths each year in areas of Appalachia where mountaintop removal (MTR) operations take place. The air and water pollution caused by this mining practice, which involves deforesting and tearing off mountaintops to get at the coal, is leading to increases in cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, pulmonary disease, and birth defects, his research shows.

Michael Hendryx

Michael Hendryx

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Hendryx talks about why he believes scientists were slow to consider the health impacts of mountaintop removal mining; what he thinks about the Trump administration’s recent decision to halt a government-funded study on MTR’s health risks; and why he disputes the notion that mountaintop mining is essential for economic development  in Appalachia.

“Blowing up mountains, deforesting large tracts of land, polluting streams, destroying roads from all the trucks going by, coating the landscape in dust, making people sick— what other employers are going to move into that area?” he says. 

Yale Environment 360: In areas of West Virginia where mountaintop removal mining takes place, as much as 10 percent of the landscape has been leveled. How did it come to be so widely practiced?

Michael Hendryx: Mountaintop removal is a form of surface coal mining. As the name suggests, it literally removes up to 800 feet off the tops of mountains to try to reach coal seams that are not accessible by other mining techniques because the terrain is too steep or the veins are too thin. It’s a technique that had been used on a small scale all the way back to the 1970s, but it really took off in the 1990s, ironically because of the Clean Air Act amendments passed in 1990 in an effort to reduce acid rain. One way to do that is to use coal that is lower in sulphur, and the coal in these central Appalachian mountains is naturally lower in sulphur than what is found in the Western coal fields, for example. So it suddenly became more attractive economically to mine this coal, even though it ended up being very destructive of the local environment and to the health of the people who live in these communities.

e360: You were among the first to research the health impacts of mountaintop removal mining. Why do you think that nobody had really looked into this?

Hendryx: There’s a large literature on health impacts on the miners themselves, especially underground miners, and there had been maybe two or three small studies that had been done in Great Britain that showed associations or correlation between certain health indicators and surface mining there, but nothing in the U.S. I don’t know why. When I first started to talk to some of my colleagues about exploring this, many of them expressed skepticism that I would find any relationship. They assumed that the health problems, which were well known, would be due to poverty or smoking, that there really wasn’t anything going on directly with mining that would cause impacts on the population. But I thought that they were clearly wrong.

e360: You have conducted multiple public health studies in West Virginia in the past 10 years. What was your first indication that there was indeed a problem?

Hendryx: Our first study found that people who lived near MTR sites had higher levels of mortality and illness. And that relationship persists even when you control for the covariants that people talk about, so it’s not that people in those communities smoke more, or that the poverty rates are higher, or obesity rates are higher – we can control for those and we still see an independent effect on a variety of health outcomes. Not only are people who live in mining regions less healthy, but we found that as the levels of mining go up, the health impacts become increasingly more pronounced.

“The number of excess deaths every year comes to about 1,200 people who live in these mining communities compared to other parts of Appalachia.”

e360: You found that mortality rates were higher in mining areas than in similar non-mining areas — what kind of difference are we talking about?

Hendryx: When you look at excess mortality — adjusting for age and smoking and all these other variables — the number of excess deaths every year comes to about 1,200 people who live in these mining communities compared to other parts of the Appalachian region where mountaintop removal does not take place. The diseases that are most prevalent are cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, such as bronchitis and emphysema).

e360: Just to be clear, you’re not talking about illnesses that are generally associated with underground mining like black lung disease?

Hendryx: No, I haven’t looked at black lung. We were not studying the occupational illnesses of miners, but the public health impacts on the entire community. We have also seen evidence for birth defects, and for babies that are born with low birth weights. So it is a concerning pattern, and it goes way beyond what you would expect from occupational exposure.

e360: Birth defects?

Hendryx: We looked at birth certificate data over a six- to seven-year period, over a million births, again controlling for other risk factors, like smoking or drinking during pregnancy, and other medical conditions, and we found a striking pattern. Not only were the birth defects significantly elevated in the MTR areas. Heart defects were the most common – the risk for these was 181 percent higher in mining areas. Compare that to mothers who smoke during pregnancy, which is a well-established risk factor for birth defects, which [elevates the risk by] 30 percent. So the effect of mothers living in a mining area was six times higher than the effect for mothers who smoke. It’s incredible.

The Kayford Mine near Charleston, West Virginia.

The Kayford Mine near Charleston, West Virginia. Dennis Dimick / Flickr

e360: What is the mechanism that are causing these higher birth defect and disease rates?

Hendryx: We have some hypotheses. The first studies were epidemiological, but we didn’t have any direct environmental data. So that is what we started to do next, to go into some of these communities and collect air and water samples. We have discovered that particulate matter as a rule is elevated in mining communities compared to other communities in West Virginia without mining.

When we looked at size distribution of these particles, they were mostly the ultra-fine range, which was kind of surprising to us. When you think about mining, you think of the dust from the blasting, so I would have guessed that it would have been coarser material like PM [particulate matter] 10, for example. In fact, where the difference was greater was in the very small particles.

e360: What is the health significance of the fact that the particles are so small?

Hendryx: The smaller the particle, the more dangerous they are pound-for-pound so to speak. Because with small particles, almost all of it is surface. So whatever the material is, it is going to come into contact with biological tissue. Also, because they’re so small, these particles can penetrate deeply into lung tissue and they can potentially even pass through the lungs and into the vascular system and then go literally anywhere in the body. So if you look at the literature mostly from Europe — Europe’s ahead of us on this — they are finding that ultra-fines are of greater concern for human health than particles like PM 2.5, which we have standards for. The U.S. doesn’t have any standards for ultra-fines. But the scientific community is ahead of the regulatory community on this in recognizing their threat.

e360: What are these particulates in the air near MTR sites composed of?

Hendryx: We’re seeing a lot of metals like aluminum, for example, tin, and iron, but we’re also seeing high levels of silica, and that’s, I think, a prime candidate for explaining what’s going on in these communities. Silica is a known lung carcinogen – it’s well established that it contributes to lung disease, and that is one of the strongest and most consistent patterns that we’re seeing of these lung problems in these communities that we’re studying.

We’re also analyzing the dust for organics, and we see elevations in a variety of PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons). Those are coming we think in part from mining activities that use fossil fuels in diesel explosives, for example, and in diesel trucks and trains. But a lot of the PAHs are in the lower molecular weight range, which shows that they are from uncombusted sources, so a lot of it is probably coming from the coal itself, which can also be harmful to people who are breathing it in on a regular basis.

“I get messages from people… showing strangely colored black or orange discharges flowing down somebody’s creek downriver of these processing sites.”

e360: Is the blasting itself the main cause for these particles getting into the air?

Hendryx:  There are two major sources of pollution. One is the activity at the sites themselves that are raising the overburdens – the dust coming into the air above the coal seams. And the second is from the processing. After the coal is extracted, it is transported to these processing sites where the coal is crushed and washed. That raises a lot of dust in the air. In some of the communities that are close to these plants, you can see dust coating the homes on a daily basis.

e360: What are the impacts of these activities on the local water supply?

Hendryx:  This process also contaminates literally billions of gallons of water across the region. That water contains cleaning chemicals, proprietary formulas, and noncombustible material that is removed from the coal, including heavy metals like arsenic and mercury. All of this heavy contamination ends up in these earthen-lined slurry impoundments. Many times every year, I get messages from people on Facebook, for example, showing strangely colored black or orange discharges flowing down somebody’s creek downriver of these processing sites.

A creek downstream of a mountaintop removal coal mine in Magoffin County, Kentucky.

A creek downstream of a mountaintop removal coal mine in Magoffin County, Kentucky. Matt Wasson / Appalachian Voices / Flickr

e360: In August, the Trump administration ordered the National Academy of Sciences to stop working on a government-funded study about the potential health risks for people living near MTR sites. What did you think about that?

Hendryx: I was skeptical that the panel, which contained several industry people, was truly going to do a fair and unbiased review. I may have been wrong on that. But my concern was also that part of their charge was to make recommendations for future research. So if they do that and they come up with recommendations for more research, the Office of Surface Mining would say, “see, we need more research, we don’t really know,” and that they would use that as an excuse to keep blowing up mountains.

There are always more studies that we could do, there’s always more we could learn. But to say that we should do nothing and just keep studying it forever, and in the meantime the people in these communities continue to die, that to me is not acceptable.

e360: What do you say to people who criticize your own studies saying that correlation is not causation and that you are not proving that these spikes in illness are actually caused by pollution from MTR?

Hendryx: That’s the argument that the industry tries to make that these studies are correlational. And they still try to say — and I don’t know how they get away with it, because it is just not factually correct — that it is just lifestyles issues like smoking or obesity, but it’s clearly not. I mean, we’ve shown over and over that it is not those things. So from a strictly epistemological view, we haven’t nailed down all the connections yet, but it is correlational. We are studying a situation where many people are dying, and for us to say it is only correlational and so let’s keep studying until we know more, I think is immoral at this point. 

“These areas have higher unemployment rates and more poverty that anywhere else in the region because these are job-destroying activities.”

e360: What do you think of the argument of the Trump administration that we need MTR for the jobs that it creates in an economically depressed part of the country?

Hendryx: These areas have higher unemployment rates and more poverty that anywhere else in the region because these are job-destroying activities, not job-creating ones. When you compare MTR with underground mining, the amount of coal that is produced per job is much higher at the mountaintop site. That’s because of the use of explosives and the use of this heavy machinery that replaces human labor with mechanized labor. So these sites can be huge, but they require very few jobs.

e360: But MTR does create some jobs, doesn’t it?

Hendryx: Blowing up mountains, deforesting large tracts of land, polluting streams, destroying roads from all the trucks going by, coating the landscape in dust, making people sick — what other employers are going to move into that area? If you aren’t lucky enough to have one of those jobs, you’ve probably got nothing, you’ve got maybe a part-time job at the Dollar Store. Because there aren’t other opportunities, the economic base has been destroyed.

The perception that people have is that this is kind of a trade-off between the environment and jobs, and it’s really not — it’s a trade-off between the environment and the profits of a few people.