Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining Industry Continues to Poison Appalachia

There has been some shocking news out of Appalachia in recent days. First, a game-changing new study demonstrated, for the first time, a direct link between the dust from mountaintop removal coal mines and lung cancer. Then Ken Ward, Jr. of the Charleston Gazette reported on a West Virginia lab worker who pled guilty to falsifying water test results because of pressure from the coal industry. And on top of all that came another report, this time out of Kentucky, showing that mountaintop removal is straining the ecosystems needed to support wildlife and critical stream habitats.

As Appalachia charts its future, one thing is clear—it’s long past time to end mountaintop removal.

The results of the West Virginia University health study are jaw-dropping. Researchers exposed human lung tissue to mountaintop removal dust in the lab, and they found the dust exposure promoted development of lung cancer is the first study that has demonstrated such a direct link between mountaintop removal pollution and these serious health consequences.

I think someday we’ll look back on the publication of this study as a watershed moment in the long mountaintop removal struggle. Health problems have been long documented in mountaintop removal country, including in dozens of peer reviewed studies, but the coal industry has always tried to shift the blame to other causes. As Dr. Michael Hendryx told the Charleston Gazette:

“The larger implication is that we have evidence of environmental conditions in mining communities that promote human lung cancer. Previous studies ... have been criticized for being only correlational studies of illness in mining communities, and with this study we have solid evidence that mining dust collected from residential communities causes cancerous human lung cell changes.”

Meanwhile, the plot thickens in the case of the lab that diluted, substituted and otherwise tampered with water samples from coal mining sites across the state. These self-reported water samples are a key part of oversight of coal mining pollution. Just yesterday came further news from West Virginia that despite the state Department of Environmental Protection revoking certification for the lab where the falsified tests happened, the state board of environmental quality issued a stay on the revocation pending a full hearing to be held in December.

My colleague Bill Price, a fellow West Virginian and long-time advocate for Appalachian communities, is as baffled as I am. "The decision to not immediately implement the certificate revocation shows a total disregard for the safety of local residents," he said. "If you can't do it right, you don't deserve to be a certified water testing company. Period."

Bill, like me and so many others, hopes that federal and state investigators will dig much deeper, and faster. We have a right to know if the coal industry is pressuring other labs to falsify water tests, and guilty parties should be held responsible.

Meanwhile, the study out of Kentucky shows that reclamation of mined sites does not lead to recovery of the ecosystem, and that's because of fundamental, long term damage to waterways caused by surface and mountaintop removal mining activities. You can't blow off the top of the mountain, shove all the debris into a nearby valley, then replant some trees and expect everything to go back to normal. Among other reasons, this is because the science is making it increasingly clear that coal mining waste continues to pollute streams decades after mining ends.

As residents in West Virginia, Kentucky and other Appalachian states call for an end to mountaintop removal and all the harms it causes, they are also calling on their leaders to chart a safe, healthy, prosperous path forward for the region. In West Virginia and Kentucky, legislators have assembled task forces to begin tackling the question of how to diversify coalfield economies—the SCORE program in West Virginia and the SOAR project in Kentucky. It remains to be seen whether these efforts will really grapple with moving beyond a boom and bust fossil fuel economy, but it’s a start. Meanwhile, grassroots organizations in both states are doing sophisticated, important work on economic transition.

As Appalachia charts its future, one thing is clear—it’s long past time to end mountaintop removal. The U.S. EPA can act to rein in the worst abuses of the coal industry. Congress can pass the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency (ACHE) Act and the Clean Water Protection Act. There is no time to waste—with each passing day, lives hang in the balance.


Mountaintop Removal Linked to Cancer

Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining Decimates Fish Populations in Appalachia

It’s Time to Move Beyond Dirty Coal

Show Comments ()
Marine debris laden beach in Hawaii. NOAA Marine Debris Program / Flickr

Ocean Plastic Projected to Triple Within Seven Years

If we don't act now, plastic pollution in the world's oceans is projected to increase three-fold within seven years, according to a startling new report.

The Future of the Sea report, released Wednesday for the UK government, found that human beings across the globe produce more than 300 million metric tons of plastic per year. Unfortunately, a lot of that material ends up in our waters, with the total amount of plastic debris in the sea predicted to increase from 50 million metric tons in 2015 to 150 million metric tons by 2025.

Keep reading... Show less
Thawing permafrost in Noatak National Preserve, Alaska. NPS Climate Change Response

Methane Meltdown: Thawing Permafrost Could Release More Potent Greenhouse Gas Than Expected

A study published in Nature Climate Change Monday shows that thawing permafrost in the Arctic might produce more methane than previously thought. Methane has 28 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of carbon dioxide, so the findings indicate scientists might have to reassess how thawing permafrost will contribute to climate change.

Keep reading... Show less
Solar shade canopies. University of Hawaii

This College Could Become the First 100% Renewable Campus in U.S.

As a growing number of U.S. cities make pledges towards 100 percent renewables, it's easy to forget that the entire state of Hawaii set this important benchmark three years ago when it mandated that all of its electricity must come from renewable sources no later than 2045.

To help the Aloha State meet this ambitious commitment, in 2015, the University of Hawaii (UH) and the Hawaiian Legislature set a collective goal for the university system to be "net-zero" by Jan. 1, 2035, which means the total amount of energy consumed is equal to the amount of renewable energy created.

Keep reading... Show less

Silver Nanoparticles in Clothing Wash Out, May Be Toxic

By Sukalyan Sengupta and Tabish Nawaz

Humans have known since ancient times that silver kills or stops the growth of many microorganisms. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is said to have used silver preparations for treating ulcers and healing wounds. Until the introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s, colloidal silver (tiny particles suspended in a liquid) was a mainstay for treating burns, infected wounds and ulcers. Silver is still used today in wound dressings, in creams and as a coating on medical devices.

Keep reading... Show less
4.4 million premature air pollution deaths could be avoided in Kolkata if emissions are reduced swiftly this century. M M / CC BY-SA 2.0

Study Finds Timely Emissions Reductions Could Prevent 153 Million Air Pollution Deaths This Century

One of the roadblocks to swift action on climate change is the human brain's tendency to focus on threats and stimuli that are an obvious and noticeable part of their everyday lives, rather than an abstract and future problem, as Amit Dhir explained in The Decision Lab.

Now, a study published in Nature Climate Change Monday shows that acting quickly to curb greenhouse gas emissions would also reduce the air pollution that is already a major urban killer, thereby saving millions of lives within the next 40 years.

Keep reading... Show less
Lands threatened by BLM's March 2018 sale include Hatch Point. Neal Clark / SUWA

Trump Administration Sells Oil and Gas Leases Near Utah National Monuments

The Interior Department on Tuesday is auctioning off 32 parcels of public lands in southeastern Utah for oil and gas development.

The Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) lease sale includes more than 51,000 acres of land near Bears Ears—the national monument significantly scaled back by the Trump administration last year—as well as the Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients monuments.

Keep reading... Show less
Katharine Hayhoe talks climate communication hacks at the Natural Products Expo West Convention. Climate Collaborative

Katharine Hayhoe Reveals Surprising Ways to Talk About Climate Change

By Katie O'Reilly

Katharine Hayhoe isn't your typical atmospheric scientist. Throughout her career, the evangelical Christian and daughter of missionaries has had to convince many (including her pastor husband) that science and religion need not be at odds when it comes to climate change. Hayhoe, who directs Texas Tech's University's Climate Science Center, is CEO of ATMOS Research, a scientific consulting company, and produces the PBS Kids' web series Global Weirding, rose to national prominence in early 2012 after then-presidential candidate Newt Gingrich dropped her chapter from a book he was editing about the environment. The reason? Hayhoe's arguments affirmed that climate change was no liberal hoax. The Toronto native attracted the fury of Rush Limbaugh, who encouraged his listeners to harass her.

Keep reading... Show less
Rising Tide NA / Twitter

Kinder Morgan Pipeline Protest Grows: Arrests Include a Greenpeace Founder, Juno-Nominated Grandfather

By Andy Rowell

Just because you get older, it doesn't mean you cannot stop taking action for what you believe in. And Monday was a case in point. Two seventy-year-olds, still putting their bodies on the line for environmental justice and indigenous rights.

Early Monday morning, the first seventy-year-old, a grandfather of two, and former nominee for Canada's Juno musical award, slipped into Kinder Morgan's compound at one of its sites for the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline and scaled a tree and then erected a mid-air platform with a hammock up in the air.

Keep reading... Show less


The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!