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Young Lives Lost, At Risk in Mountaintop Removal Mining Communities

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Powell Valley Memorial Gardens, Virginia
When a boulder crushed 3-year-old Jeremy Davidson to death while he slept in his Appalachia, Virginia home, the community responded with outrage. Activists marched in the streets, loved ones demanded more responsible rules for modern mining, and everyone had the sense that things might get safer around this proud community built on coal. Fast forward eight years, and a resident living in the Davidsons’ former neighborhood is sharing her concern about another, much larger boulder, now perched high above her home.  The woman shared her worries with community leader Jane Branham of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, mentioning that the grandson who stays with her is just about the age Jeremy was when that terrible accident happened.

Another of Appalachia’s tiniest residents never lived to see his 3rd birthday.  The little boy’s family had to lay him to rest recently at a cemetery in nearby Powell Valley.  At just 2 years old, the little boy had been born with a heart defect, endured multiple surgeries, and broke the hearts of everyone who knew him when he recently passed away.
In contrast to the bluntness of a boulder, a birth defect can cruelly tamper with a young life and the family around it while never even revealing its source.  Not like that terrible boulder that could prompt stunned neighbors to point to the top of a mountain.  So, loved ones and neighbors talk instead in hushed voices, pray, and shake their heads in disbelief.  How could this happen?  They’ll never have clear answers.
The crushing weight of poor health is a common burden for residents in communities like Appalachia, where the people live near mountaintop removal mining operations.  It’s a phenomenon health researchers have been studying for years. They’re looking at health in places near MTR and in so-called control groups that are far away from MTR.  “There’s no question in my mind that the rates of birth defects are higher in the mountaintop removal mining areas than in the control areas and that the disadvantage in the MTR communities has gotten worse in recent years,” shared health researcher Michael Hendryx, PhD of West Virginia University.  Hendryx says a peer-reviewed 2011 study showed especially stunning statistics about heart and lung birth defects.  While it noted that a mother smoking during pregnancy increased her baby’s risk of a respiratory birth defect by 30%, the Hendryx study showed that a pregnant woman simply residing near mountaintop removal mining increased a baby’s risk of a heart or lung birth defect by 181%.
Mountaintop Removal Mining viewed from Black Mountain
The Center for Health, Environment & Justice has analyzed reports on health effects of mountaintop removal mining, stating. It summarizes, “Recent studies have revealed significant possible associations between MTR mining and health disparities in Central Appalachia.  According to these studies, self-reported cancer rates and chronic cardiovascular mortality rates are significantly higher in areas where MTR mining occurs, even after controlling for covariates like respondent age, sex, smoking status, occupational history or family history.  One of the most pronounced health impacts associated with MTR mining is elevated rates of birth defects in Central Appalachia. Reproductive outcomes including birth defects are considered a sensitive indicator of toxic chemical exposures.”
Coal-industry-funded research paints a starkly contrasting picture of community health.  Researchers have teamed up in a group called Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science or ARIES.  ARIES  industry spokesman John Craynon said, “It seems the statistical difference between coal mining and non-coal mining communities is statistically insignificant.  Overall, the mortality rates and morbidity rates are down, but we do see that people are getting healthier.”  ARIES cautions against jumping to conclusions about cause and effect, calling for more research. Industry-funded researchers have also criticized some methodology of Hendryx and others.  Craynon gives an example of one hospital inaccurately reporting birth marks as “birth defects” and skewing the data.  Hendryx has responded in detail to such criticisms, maintaining, “even if there is some level of inaccuracy in the records, as a whole that does not account for the differentially higher rate in the MTR mining communities.”
Negative regional stereotypes and lifestyle choices have also been used to criticize studies on MTR and community health.  The ARIES research team reports on its website, “The categories in which we found excesses in coal mining counties are arguably heavily influenced by personal behaviors and risk factors, including heart disease, diabetes, and lung cancer.  We were not able to control for personal risk factors in these analyses, including causes of death highly affected by smoking, such as heart disease and respiratory system cancer.”  In contrast, Hendryx notes his research has shown there are valid health concerns apart from things like smoking habits.  Hendryx told, “We were able to control for smoking and other lifestyle factors and the health problems in the mountaintop removal mining communities are not explained by these other variables.”
Next time:  mountain community mothers speak up for children’s health…
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