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Coal mining’s lasting legacy in West Virginia: cancer and birth defects



Recent studies suggest that coal mining affects the health of everyone who lives nearby — not just those who work in the mines, writes Erin L McCoy.

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 co-ordinator with the anti-mining non-profit organisation 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.”

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 February 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 non-profit organisation 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 leukaemia, are all higher than in non-mining areas. These findings control for other risk factors, like smoking and socioeconomic status. (Lung cancer and kidney disease hospitalisation rates, though, were actually lower in areas with coal production. This may be because people aren’t necessarily hospitalised in the community where they live, the author of this study points out.)

COPD, which affects Gary Bone, has also been linked to coal mining. The odds of COPD hospitalisation increase 1% 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 hospitalisation for high blood pressure increase, too — 1% 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% higher in areas with this type of mining; and 2000 to 2003, during which risk was 42% 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.

Dr Michael Hendryx, a professor of applied health science at Indiana University, who co-authored the study, has been researching health issues in the coal mining areas of Appalachia since 2006. He says the research left him with little doubt about the impact of the mining industry.

I can definitively say that there are higher levels of health problems in mining communities, especially mountaintop removal communities, than others“, he says. “To try to pretend that we don’t have enough information to try to act, that we don’t know what is happening, is unethical. It’s immoral.”

Not everyone agrees that the evidence is definitive. Nancy Gravatt, senior vice-president of communications at the National Mining Association, points to several responses that she says refute the results of studies like Hendryx’s. One study, by Dr Jonathan Borak et al, concludes that coal mining isn’t an independent risk factor for increased mortality in the Appalachian region and points to other factors such as obesity and poverty. Borak’s paper was reportedly funded by the National Mining Association, though Borak has maintained his opinions are not for hire.

Representatives of coal company Alpha Natural Resources did not respond to interview requests for this article.

An environment built by coal

Another way that scientists have tried to assess the effect of coal on public health is to measure the air and water quality near both surface and underground mines.

Several recent studies indicate that when it comes to environmental pollutants, mining areas are often much worse off than areas where no mining is taking place. One study collected particulate matter from the air within one mile of an active mountaintop removal site in southern West Virginia, and found it to be 38% sulfur and 24% silica. According to Hendryx, the silica (in this case, crystalline silica) is a particular cause for concern.

Crystalline silica is toxic. It’s highly carcinogenic, and I think it’s the silica in particular that’s driving the health problems we’ve seen“, he says.

Another paper, authored by Dr Laura Kurth of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and slated for release soon, has documented for the first time that there is more ultrafine particulate matter in areas with surface mining. Ultrafine particles are smaller than a tenth of a micron in size, and can penetrate through the lungs into the blood system, Hendryx explains.

Water quality has also been affected by mining. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2011 notes that waste rock from mountaintop removal mines is often disposed of in nearby valleys, where it comes into contact with streams. The study found that the amount of sulfate, magnesium and selenium in the water increased in proportion to the amount of mining upstream, and in some areas, there was a “very high incidence” of selenium-linked developmental deformities in the larvae of two types of fish.

Large amounts of selenium can be toxic, though it’s unclear whether there’s enough selenium in West Virginia waterways to harm humans. Still, selenium levels in West Virginia waters have been a topic of debate between community groups and politicians for years. In 2013, a bill to weaken current maximum selenium standards and conduct more research about whether selenium is actually impacting West Virginia streams passed almost unanimously.

One possible source of water pollution is the slurry that remains after the coal frothing process in coal prep plants, in which coal dust is separated from other materials so that the dust can be used. This slurry, and the chemicals in it, is pumped into huge reservoirs, called slurry impoundments, or into underground mines.

Gravatt confirmed in an email that, “On occasion, [slurry] can be disposed of in abandoned underground mines. To do so, operators need to get a permit from the state water authority (at least in the case of [West Virginia]). It should be noted that disposing of such materials in abandoned, underground mines avoids placing the same materials on the surface in impoundments.”

Walk grew up with well water, and remembers that it would sometimes run red from the faucet.

Anybody with half a brain wouldn’t drink it. But you still have to shower in it, you’ve got to wash your clothes, wash your dishes. Sometimes my parents would even cook with it because they boiled it and when you boiled it, it looked fine, smelled fine“, Walk said. He learned later that boiling the water doesn’t make the chemicals go away.

Science and community

Local groups have generally advocated for greater awareness about coal mining’s health impacts in three ways: community education, policy work and direct action.

In 2013, OVEC partnered with the Southern Appalachian Labour School to host a series of public meetings in Fayette County, West Virginia, to educate people about the impacts of coal mining.

These meetings inspired a group of citizens to organize a study in their area with Hendryx’s help. About 45 people were surveyed for self-reported illnesses. Although the sample size was small, Keating said the most important result was empowering people to defend themselves.

People in the state have been ‘done to’ and ‘done for’ long enough“, she said. “It’s time that people realize that they do have power.”

Many of OVEC’s efforts have centered around raising awareness in small communities. The organisation provides water testing around the state upon request, and in the last two years, has hosted a conference to open up a dialogue between people affected by fracking and others affected by mountaintop removal. At least one faith group plans to help Hendryx conduct a survey this year, Keating said.

There are a lot of people of faith here, and it’s more difficult for politicians or industry to marginalise us when we have solid backing from the faith community“, she said.

On the policy front, Coal Mountain River Watch in collaboration with OVEC and other groups won a legal settlement in 2011 that required Alpha Natural Resources, a coal company, to construct selenium treatment facilities at a cost of more than $50m (£30m).

Today, CRMW is helping to spearhead the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act in the US Congress. The act, introduced in February 2013 by Rep John Yarmuth, a Democrat from Kentucky, would require comprehensive studies on mountaintop removal’s impact on human health. It has 45 co-sponsors in the House.

Walk is a member of at least three local advocacy groups, and is a founding member of RAMPS (Radical Action for Mountain People’s Survival), which focuses on non-violent direct action. He recalls one of those campaigns as we walk up a muddy path through Roberts Cemetery, a small island of public land at the centre of the Hobet Mountain surface mining complex. Fallen leaves coat the hillside, but when we reach the top, the scene opens up: the mountains are mostly bare of trees. Ahead of us, a thin layer of grass sprouts from a huge pile of rubble that resembles a mountain, and in the distance, a few large machines groan dully. It’s a Saturday; the site is quieter than usual.

Walk describes an event that RAMPS put together called the Mountain Mobilisation, which happened here at Hobet in July 2012. “It was pretty awesome“, he says. “We just had about 50 of our good friends go with us, climb up all over their equipment, and lock ourselves to things, and generally raise havoc that day on that mine site, and shut them down.”

The site was shut down for a day, and 20 people were arrested. Their total bail amounted to $500,000 (£298,000). But Walk’s goals were to raise awareness and cost the coal companies money, and RAMPS achieved those goals.

Home in the mountains

Walk and I stop the car off the side of Route 3, which runs for miles along the base of Coal River Mountain. We’re trying to get a good look at a valley fill, where rock and debris from a nearby mine piles up between the ridges to the south. It’s hard to see through the trees, but the sun is coming out on an otherwise grey December day, and flickering off the Big Coal River below. The branches sway in a gust of wind left over from the rainfall.

I would never live anywhere else“, says Walk. He grew up just down the road, and as a kid, spent his free time riding four-wheelers in the mountains.

My grandpa used to collect arrowheads a lot… and there was this one place he used to take me on Coal River Mountain called Bear Wallow, and that place doesn’t exist anymore,” he says. “It was on top of a ridge. They blew it up.”

After high school, Walk worked in a coal preparation plant for six months. Walk quit working there, but then took a job as a security guard at another plant.

I felt like I had blood on my hands when I worked that job, and I just couldn’t do it“, he says. “I knew that the people who lived below that mine site I was making money off of were going through the same things I went through when I was a little kid, and I felt miserable about it. And that’s when I started coming around the local organisations around here and seeing what I could do to help out.”

Erin L McCoy wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, non-profit media organisation that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Erin worked as a newspaper reporter and photographer in Kentucky for almost two years. She is now a Seattle-based freelance writer specialising in education, environment, cultural issues and travel, informed by her time teaching English in Malaysia and other travels. Contact her at elmccoy [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter: @ErinLMcCoy.

Further reading:

Coal: spelling an end to a dirty heritage

Fracking releases hormone-disrupting chemicals, study finds

World Health Organisation: air pollution is carcinogenic to humans

Mercury levels at Canadian tar sands sites 16 times higher than normal

Climate change aside, we’re harming our children with dirty energy


Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?



self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo |

Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?

But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?

The Big Picture

The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.

That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.

Driver Reduction?

One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.

As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.


Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.

Make and Model of Car

Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.

On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.

The Bottom Line

Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?

Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.

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New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035



renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart /

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.


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