Last summer, Jeanine Buchanich—a biostatistician at the University of Pittsburgh—began looking at a problem. Was living in a coal-mining town bad for you?
She looked at death records from 62 counties in Appalachia, all of similar socioeconomic makeup. Half of the counties were in coal-mining areas, the other half were not. There were hundreds of thousands of records.
She asked a simple question—was the death rate in coal-mining counties higher?
“We found that the coal-mining counties had higher mortality compared to non coal-mining counties across every time period for males and females,” Buchanich said.
Even in the most recent time period, the death rate was considerably higher in coal counties—10 percent higher for men, and 7 percent higher for women.
Part of that could be explained by things like black lung disease. And non-cancer lung diseases were higher in the coal-mining counties. But black lung and ailments like it didn’t explain the overall finding that people in these coal-mining areas die more frequently than elsewhere.
So, what did explain it? Was it coal itself?
One West Virginia University scientist, Michael Hendryx, has published a series of studies that say that’s the logical conclusion.
This is a controversial a form of strip mining where the summit of a mountain is removed—often with explosives. Surface mining, which includes mountaintop removal, accounts for nearly half of all coal production in Central Appalachia, according to the Energy Information Agency. It’s a political lightening rod, and some groups want to ban it altogether.
But not all scientists who’ve looked at the problem think mountaintop removal or other forms of coal mining are to blame for health problems.
“The problem is that the theory that this is due to coal and coal pollution is politically attractive but scientifically not defensible,” says Jonathan Borak, a physician and epidemiologist at Yale.
Borak got funding from the National Mining Association to review Hendryx’s work. He published a paper in a scholarly journal refuting the basic claim—that health problems ensue from coal mining.
Instead of looking at some kind of environmental thread, Borak says, look at other factors. These communities have high rates of smoking, obesity, and low education rates—all of these things increase your risk of disease.
“What we see is there’s more smoking, more obesity, less exercise less use of preventive health care, and a whole variety of these things,” said Borak. “Which seem to happen in particularly isolated communities, many of which happen to be enriched with coal mining—and you can’t separate it all.”
The Pitt study found higher rates of heart disease and diabetes. These are often correlated with lifestyle. Borak says there may be something about living near a coal mine that encourages these unhealthy lifestyles, like smoking.
“It may or may not be due to the coal mining—I actually don’t know but I think it could be—but it’s not due to the coal.”
Poverty, smoking, obesity—they’re certainly high in Central Appalachian mining counties—but it’s coal that’s making people there sick, said Bo Webb, an anti-coal activist involved with a campaign to end mountaintop removal.
“I don’t for one second believe it’s anything else,” Webb said.
Webb became an activist when a coal company began mountaintop removal behind his house in Raleigh County in southern West Virginia. He blames dust from mountaintop detonations for the deaths of three of his cousins. And this month, his wife, Joanne, died of lung cancer.
“She never smoked, she lived a clean life. She was always in her garden. She was breathing this crap,” he said.
Clouding the scientific question is where all these researchers get their funding. Borak, who was funded by the National Mining Association, says while his time is for hire, his opinions are not.
Buchanich, the Pitt biostatistician—also got her money from coal companies—albeit indirectly. Her research is funded by the Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science (ARIES). ARIES received $15 million in funding by a consortium of coal companies, to develop “science-based solutions” to environmental impacts of coal mining.
But the companies don’t get to review the research before it is published—it’s peer-reviewed in the same exact way as any other research.
“We’re researchers and our reputation is based on putting out good science, which goes out into the peer-review world and can be seen by other scientists,” Buchanich said. “It’s in our best interest to put out the good science, regardless of what those findings are.”
As to the question—why are people in coal-mining counties dying? Buchanich hopes to start answering that this summer. Her team will interview people in coal country to find out how frequently people there smoke, are overweight, or work in a coal mine. That research is expected to take two years.
Jonathan Borak analyzed health-influencing factors in all coal-mining communities in Appalachia, not just those where mountaintop mining is practiced.