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West Virginians Raise Alarm as Research Links Coal Mining to Cancer, Birth Defects

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Original published at Yes! Magazine

Recent studies suggest that coal mining affects the health of everyone who lives nearby -- not just those who work in the mines.

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by  Erin L. McCoy

A home is nearly surrounded by the Hobet mountaintop-removing coal mine in Boone County, W.V.
(Image by Photo by Vivian Stockman / ohvec.org.)
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In the middle of a sentence, Gary Bone has to stop and gasp.

"I lose my breath," he tells me through the phone.

Bone is 56 and suffers from asbestosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and black lung. These aren't the only remnants of nearly 20 years working in the coal mines of West Virginia. A scar on his back marks the spot where three discs were removed from his spine after a rock fell on him.

"Any kind of injuries you can imagine, a coal mine's going to have it," Bone says. "I've seen people that's got their eye put out, fingers mashed up, whole lot of cuts, whole lot of back injuries. Back injuries are one of the most visible things."

Bone isn't the only miner with stories like these. Junior Walk, an outreach coordinator with the anti-mining nonprofit organization Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW), says his grandfather survived several injuries in the mines.

"He broke his back twice in two different rock falls underground, where the ceiling just collapsed in on him. Broke his legs once -- both of his legs -- getting run over by a man trip, which is how they transport you in and out of the coal mine," Walk says. "He made me swear to him when I was a kid that I would never set foot in an underground mine."

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Today, Walk's grandfather has black lung, and Bone's mobility is severely limited. The biggest disasters of coal mining certainly make the news -- like the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in 2010, which killed 29 men and shook the ground beneath the house where Walk grew up. But a growing body of research suggests that the invisible threats that cause many miners to retire early -- the respiratory problems, the cancer, the chronic disease -- also debilitate and kill an untold number of West Virginians each year.

In recent years, research has drawn new links between coal mining and health problems in the areas where that mining takes place. In response, local groups are working to support further research and boost awareness of these problems. The chemical leak that left 300,000 West Virginians without water for more than a week in January, the 108,000-gallon slurry spill on Feb. 11, and another slurry spill just days ago have brought national attention to the issue. Local advocates hope that this attention, in combination with new research, will translate into a more open dialogue on the health dangers of coal mining.

Janet Keating, executive director at the nonprofit organization Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, says that the spills should draw attention to the more chronic problems at hand.

"The day-to-day air and water pollution and associated health impacts from living with mountain removal and large-scale surface mining has been largely ignored by lawmakers and people in West Virginia living outside of the southern coal regions," she wrote in an email.

Health impacts have been an everyday worry for Bone, whose wife has been by his side through all the doctor's appointments and the difficult days. While we're on phone, he stops to call out to her: "Peggy, put something on, it's cold out!"

It's one of the coldest Januaries in decades. Into the receiver, he says, "I should be doing that. I should be starting my wife's vehicle."

Chronic disease, birth defects, and coal

Mortality rates attributed to kidney, respiratory, and heart disease are significantly higher in Appalachian counties with high levels of coal mining, compared to non-mining areas, according to a 2009 study.

Cancer is a particular culprit. A study that compared two rural West Virginia communities, one with mining and one without, found that self-reported cancer rates were twice as high in the mining areas. In areas with mountaintop removal (or surface mining), rates of lung, bladder, kidney, and colon cancer, along with leukemia, are all higher than in non-mining areas. These findings control for other risk factors, like smoking and socioeconomic status.

COPD, which affects Gary Bone, has also been linked to coal mining. The odds of COPD hospitalization increase 1 percent for every additional 1,462 tons of coal mined in an area during one particular year, according to a study published in 2007. Odds of hospitalization for high blood pressure increase, too -- 1 percent for every 1,873 tons mined that year.

One of the most stunning findings of recent years: the risk for birth defects in areas where mountaintop-removal coal mining is prevalent is significantly higher than in non-mining areas, according to a study published in 2011. The study looked at two periods of time: 1996 to 1999, during which risk was 13 percent higher in areas with this type of mining; and 2000 to 2003, during which risk was 42 percent higher. Six of seven types of birth defects -- including circulatory/respiratory, central nervous system, and gastrointestinal -- were "significantly higher" in areas with mountaintop removal. This, again, is after controlling for other factors.

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