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Dear Sec. Burwell: Come Home to See Firsthand Appalachia's Health Crisis and Help Us Halt Mountaintop Removal Mining

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Dear Sec. Burwell: Come Home to See Firsthand Appalachia's Health Crisis and Help Us Halt Mountaintop Removal Mining

Here's a reality check: Since President Obama took office in 2009, not a single top level official from the White House, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Council on Environmental Quality, Department of the Interior or Department of Justice has ever made a fact-finding tour of mountaintop removal mining communities in central Appalachia, home to one of the worst health and humanitarian disasters in the nation. Even worse, a federal judge ruled last month that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may disregard studies on the health impacts of mountaintop removal mining in its permitting process.

Mountaintop removal/valley fill coal mining in southern West Virginia. Photo credit: Vivian Stockman / Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

That could finally change with the newly appointed Department of Health and Human Service Secretary Sylvia Burwell, who was born and raised in Hinton, West Virginia.

"We implore you to come home for a visit, come to our mountaintop removal communities in the Coal River Valley," nationally-honored West Virginia advocate Bo Webb wrote in a letter to Burwell this week. "Come to Twilight and Lindytown and see what mountaintop removal is doing to us."

Recognizing the staggering human and health crisis from the extreme form of strip mining, including high birth defects and cancer rates, besieged residents and coal mining families in Burwell's neighboring West Virginia communities have now issued an urgent appeal to the HHS chief to make a breakthrough visit to afflicted residents.

"All of us who have been born and grown up in West Virginia recognize our close connection to coal and the coal industry," wrote Webb, a Vietnam veteran, who co-founded the Appalachian Community Health Emergency group. "My father, uncles, grandfather, and cousins, all worked in underground coal mines. Mining has been an honorable job in West Virginia." He added:

But now there is this most destructive method of mining known as mountaintop removal, and if you live near this specific type of mining you have greatly increased chances of getting cancer. (Double that of non-mountaintop removal communities and nearly triple the national average). Birth defects in our mountaintop removal communities have grown shockingly higher as mountaintop removal has become more prevalent. Heart and lung diseases have increased as well. Scientific research continues to unveil this increasing health crisis, yet our family’s health is being ignored. It is heartbreaking to continue to witness close friends and family members suffer and die, knowing their deaths are premature and preventable. Yet our state and federal leaders refuse to even acknowledge the multitudes of peer reviewed scientific research that show these health issues are unique and specific to mountaintop removal communities.

The HHS, of course, is the "U.S. government’s principal agency for protecting the health of all Americans and providing essential human services."

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More than 20 peer-reviewed studies have been published on the heath impacts of mountaintop removal mining on residents and miners.

The results: Higher birth defect rateshigher cancer rates and skyrocketing health care costs and burdens in mountaintop removal communities.

In an oped in the Charleston Gazette last week, Webb, whose family has lived under a mountaintop removal operation, wrote: "This is personal to me. In 2012, my wife Joanne was diagnosed with lung cancer. She passed away three months later. It was devastating. We had been married for nearly 40 years. All around us, people are getting sick. They’re dying. And the scientific evidence tells us mountaintop removal mining is the cause of much of this suffering."

Here's Webb's full letter to Burwell:

The Honorable Sylvia Burwell

Secretary, Department of Health and Human Services

200 Independence Avenue, S.W.

Washington, D.C. 20201

Dear Madam Secretary,

Congratulations on your confirmation of becoming President Obama’s choice to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. As a West Virginian I am extremely proud of your service to our country going back to the Clinton administration, your foundation work since, and now this most important appointment. I wish you the very best in your new position and have no doubt you will achieve great success as you have throughout your career.

I am hopeful that your appointment might give those of us West Virginians who are experiencing firsthand the health horrors of mountaintop removal mining an opportunity to finally have someone at the federal level recognize the great number of health disparities that exist in mountaintop removal communities specific.

All of us who have been born and grown up in West Virginia recognize our close connection to coal and the coal industry. My father, uncles, grandfather, and cousins, all worked in underground coal mines. Mining has been an honorable job in West Virginia.

But now there is this most destructive method of mining known as mountaintop removal, and if you live near this specific type of mining you have greatly increased chances of getting cancer. (Double that of non-mountaintop removal communities and nearly triple the national average). Birth defects in our mountaintop removal communities have grown shockingly higher as mountaintop removal has become more prevalent. Heart and lung diseases have increased as well. Scientific research continues to unveil this increasing health crisis, yet our family’s health is being ignored. It is heartbreaking to continue to witness close friends and family members suffer and die, knowing their deaths are premature and preventable. Yet our state and federal leaders refuse to even acknowledge the multitudes of peer reviewed scientific research that show these health issues are unique and specific to mountaintop removal communities.

I implore you to come home for a visit, come to our mountaintop removal communities in the Coal River Valley. Come to Twilight and Lindytown and see what mountaintop removal is doing to us. On the average there are 5 million pounds of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel mix detonated per day in the mountains directly above our homes in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. This has been going on for nearly the last 20 years. The fallout of fine particulates of silica, aluminum and other toxins are killing us.

Please come and see for yourself. Please talk to research scientists at WVU and Indiana University who have published papers on this subject. Please talk to research scientists at the United State Geological Survey that have collected and conducted test on the air we are breathing. I am more than happy to supply you all their names and contact information. But please, more than anything, first please come home and see this with your own eyes. I would be more than happy to organize local groups and individuals for you to meet on such a visit.

Sincerely,

Bo Webb

PO Box274

Naoma, WV 25140

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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