FRANKFORT — People who live near mountaintop removal mining sites in Floyd County have significantly higher cancer death rates and suffer a higher incidence of other diseases than residents in other Kentucky Appalachian counties where mountaintop removal doesn’t occur.
That’s the conclusion of a study by Michael Hendryx, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of West Virginia, who has done similar research in West Virginia. The report was published in The Journal of Rural Health.
The president of the Kentucky Coal Association, Bill Bissett, and Kentucky’s Speaker of the House, Greg Stumbo, who is from Floyd County, scoffed at the methodology and conclusions of the report.
“I don’t believe that stuff for a minute,” said Stumbo. “I’ve lived there all my life. There are no pollutants in the air. When you blow up something, it’s just dust for a little while and that’s the end of it. It’s not like the sky is blackened every day.”
Hendryx’s study disputes that, indicating small particulate matter like ammonium nitrate, silica and benzene, which have been linked to health problems, are present in the air near mountaintop removal sites. Streams and ground water are polluted.
Bev May, a nurse practitioner who lives along Wilson Creek in Floyd County where coal trucks daily pass her house, said it doesn’t require a scientific degree to realize coal dust, which covers houses and yards, is harmful.
May said the dust creates tiny, airborne particulate matter, too small to be trapped by cilia, very small hairs in the respiratory system which catch larger particles and expel them through mucus. Instead, the tiny particles are deposited directly into lung tissue and cause serious health problems.
“There are places in Floyd County where you have to drive through the dust every time you go through there because the coal trucks are dragging the dust and mud off the mine site,” May said. “I’m probably fine, but what about that child with asthma or the elderly person with COPD? That can’t be good for them.”
Floyd County is also home to Ricky Handshoe, whose problems with water pollution from adjacent mountaintop removal sites have been chronicled by CNHI News.
Handshoe has health concerns about two mine-polluted streams on his property. He claims when a neighbor used water from Raccoon Creek to fill a stocking fish pond, “It boiled the fish alive.”
“We have to wonder what harm the pollution is doing to our health,” said Handshoe who continues to undergo medical testing to determine the cause of numbness in his fingertips and discoloration and striation of his fingernails.
Residents of the three counties were interviewed by college students; the study factored out other health risks like smoking, occupational exposure of miners, obesity, education, income and age.
Face-to-face interviews were conducted with 952 adults 18 years of age or older who were divided into two groups: those living in Floyd County and another group living in Rowan and Elliott counties where there is no mountaintop removal activity and whose combined populations and socio-economic profiles are similar to those of Floyd County.
The study revealed there is a 54 percent higher rate of death from cancer in Floyd County over the past five years than for residents of Elliott and Rowan counties; a 56 percent higher incidence of lifetime asthma; and dramatically higher incidences of COPD and hypertension.
Those differences can’t be explained by conventional risk behaviors like smoking or education or obesity, Hendryx said in a telephone interview.
Stumbo zeroed in on the higher rates of education attainment and per capita income in Rowan County, home to Morehead State University.
“Everybody in the world knows that you can take a population that is less well educated and that has a lower per capita income and you’ll see their health habits are (worse) and hence their rates of diseases are attributable to those two things,” he said.
“Over 90 percent of (Floyd County) has treated water, so what caused this?” Stumbo asked. “It’s not the air; it’s not drinking the water. So what would be the cause if you believe there is some sort of relationship?”
Hendryx compared those sorts of questions to those who once questioned the dangers of smoking, citing a lack of direct cause-effect evidence.
“You see it time and again, you see the environment is impaired and you see the people are sick and yet people that like to support mining will deny it and try to say we don’t really know, it’s not proven,” said Hendryx. “Well, what do you want? And what is it if it’s not mining?
“I’m a rational person. To me, if you have evidence like this, that there’s a problem, then something should be done about it,” Hendryx continued. “I can’t pinpoint a particular contaminant or chemical. But even if we don’t know exactly what is causing it, the conclusion that there are health problems is undeniable – undeniable.”
Bissett, the head of the coal association, questioned Hendryx’s methodology and motivation.
"While Dr. Hendryx is not a medical doctor, he is a researcher who begins his research with a bias against coal and its extraction,” Bissett said in an email response to questions. “This bias is further revealed through his coordination with and the support of anti-coal groups such as the KFTC. In the past, Hendryx has used information gained through telephone interviews instead of medical records or actual examinations.”
Hendryx said no outside environmental groups such as the Sierra Club or KFTC funds his research and he began his studies with no bias about coal. Data for the Kentucky study were collected from personal, face-to-face interviews.
When he moved to West Virginia in 2006, Hendryx heard health concerns from coal field residents and sought existing research on the issue. When he couldn’t find any, he decided to do his own.
A Public Health Report he co-authored in 2009 found societal and health costs of coal mining in the central Appalachian region are roughly five times the economic benefits – about $42 billion in costs associated with premature deaths to about $8 billion in direct and indirect economic benefits.
Hendryx is frustrated when his research is greeted with inaction by public policymakers.
“It’s only an economic benefit to a small number of people who profit from it and for the politicians who get re-elected from it,” Hendryx said.
“I think we know enough about this to act upon it – to eliminate mountaintop removal. The impact it has on health is not worth the gains.”