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New studies begin to answer questions about mining, health

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Three new scientific reports have begun to answer questions about how mountaintop removal mining could play a role in higher levels of illnesses among residents in the Appalachian coalfields.

Researchers have found higher levels of certain types and sizes of pollution particles in communities near mountaintop removal sites, and also believe they've identified one potential mechanism for that pollution impacting public health.

The findings, presented at recent academic conferences, add to the results of nearly two dozen West Virginia University papers that found higher levels of health problems -- including cancer and birth defects -- among residents living in the shadow of large-scale surface coal mining.

"It moves beyond the epidemiological data to examine what the real environmental conditions are in the communities where people live near mountaintop removal operations," said WVU researcher Michael Hendryx, who co-authored the previous papers and the new reports.

Over the last five years, Hendryx and various co-authors have published a series of peer-reviewed studies examining possible links between mountaintop removal and various illnesses.

The work has linked health and coal-mining data to show, among other things, that residents living near mountaintop removal mines face a greater risk of cancer, birth defects, and premature deaths. Environmental groups have not funded Hendryx, but those groups have seized on his findings to argue that mountaintop removal isn't just an issue about mining's effects on salamanders, mayflies or isolated mountains streams.

Coal lobbyists have disputed the study findings and industry lawyers have so far kept the science out of courtroom battles over new mining permits. The National Mining Association funded one published study that disputed the WVU findings, and mining companies are backing a multi-university effort aimed at showing the public "what the science really shows."

Working with the U.S. Geological Survey and others, WVU researchers have been trying to address one industry criticism, by expanding their investigation from comparing coal production and public health data to examining what specific pollutants could be linked to the potential health impacts.

The findings have not yet been published in peer-reviewed journals, but some results have been delivered at academic conferences, as part of the normal scientific review process.

In the latest paper, USGS researchers gathered samples of particular matter deposited in communities near mountaintop removal operations and compared the chemical composition to similar material collected in other Southern West Virginia locations. They found higher levels of certain elements that indicate the dust is coming from the overburden, or the rock removed to get at the coal at nearby mining operations.

"It's not too surprising, since they blow up rocks to get at the coal," said USGS research geologist Allan Kolker, who delivered a paper on the results at a conference last month in Montreal.

In one related paper, WVU researchers reported that particulate matter collected from mountaintop removal communities was generally of a size that was more likely to prompt more of it to be deposited in human lungs than similar dust sampled from non-mining communities.

"These preliminary findings, along with continued sampling, will fill in gaps in the chain of causation by associating exposure and disease directly," WVU researcher Laura Esch said in a summary presented at an academic conference last October.

In another project, WVU researchers exposed laboratory rats to dust from mountaintop removal mining communities and found that the exposure appears to affect the diameter of blood vessels, which could in turn reduce blood flow.

"Exposure to particulates from mountaintop mining impairs normal function in blood vessels," said study author Travis Knuckles of WVU's Department of Community Medicine.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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