Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition
  Winds of Change Newsletter, September 2011     See sidebar for table of contents

Study Links Mountaintop Removal Mining to Babies With Birth Defects; Group Takes 500 Copies to DC

This child playing in a Roane County stream is safe - no MTR runoff here. photo by Vivian Stockman

Birth defects are the leading cause of infant death in the United States. A recent study indicates that mothers living near mountaintop-removal operations face a far greater risk of having babies with birth defects than mothers living in non-mining areas.

The peer-reviewed study was published June 21 in the journal Environmental Research. The study examined nearly 2 million central Appalachia birth records, from 1996 to 1999 and from 2000 to 2003, for the prevalence of birth defects in MTR areas, other coal mining areas and non-mining areas.

The overall rate of birth defects in mountaintop removal areas, as compared to non-mining areas, was 13 percent higher between 1996 and 1999, and 42 percent higher between 2000 and 2003. The much-higher birth defect rate in the later period suggests that the health effects of MTR-related water and air pollution may be cumulative. We have to wonder how many more birth defects are occurring now, in 2011.

Dr. Melissa Ahern at Washington State University and Dr. Michael Hendryx, Jamison Conley, Evan Fedorko, Alan Ducatman and Keith Zullig at West Virginia University conducted the study, titled "The Association between Mountaintop Mining and Birth Defects among Live Births in Central Appalachia, 1996-2003." The study was not funded by any environmental or advocacy group.

The study noted that MTR releases contaminants into the air and water, many of which are known to impair fetal development.

In MTR mining, coal companies use ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel to blast mountains apart to reach the coal. The blasts billow dust, laden with coal and silica (glass particles), over nearby communities. The dust also contains sulfur compounds and fine particles including metals and nitrogen dioxide. Catalysts used to set off the blasts can be toxic. (Remember the workers who became sick when the DEP and Army made a secret deal to "dispose" of tetryl munitions by using the explosive booster at Kayford Mountain?)

Groundwater near MTR operations has been shown to contain elevated levels of selenium, hydrogen sulfide, magnesium and other contaminants. The study also notes that the waste slurry produced at coal prep plants can contaminate ground and surface water with a toxic stew of heavy metals such as arsenic and mercury.

- Percent that a mothers smoking increases the risk that her baby will be born with defects of the circulatory or respiratory system: 17

- Percent that a mothers living in a mountaintop-removal mining area increases the risk of such defects: 181

Sue Sturgis, reporting on the study in "Facing South," a blog for the Institute for Southern Studies

"We did have individual data for each mother in terms of where she resided, her age and racial and/or ethnic origin, education, smoking and drinking during pregnancy, diabetes and other risk factors for birth defects, and we controlled for all of those," Ahern noted.

"This study shows that places where the environment the earth, air and water has undergone the greatest disturbance from mining are also the places where birth defect rates are the highest," Ahern added. "This is evidence that mountaintop-mining practices may cause health impacts on people living in those areas before they are even born."

Unless mountaintop mining is ended now, many more Appalachian children will begin their lives with disabilities that will compromise their potential and productivity for the rest of their lives. The public will bear the costs associated with the specialized medical care needed by these children for the foreseeable future.

Ahern noted that circulatory and respiratory effects really stood out. "These are costly to the health care system and involve a lot of human suffering. I would think public health officials would be interested."

"Living at the toe of a mountaintop-removal site, the impacts were clear to me years ago. This study confirms we have a problem.  Yet, in states like West Virginia and Kentucky, our governors and federal legislators are protecting the coal industry at any cost. Shame on them, for shutting us out of decisions that mean the life or death of our communities. No one is going to tell me that blowing up mountains over my home is good for me." OVEC organizer Maria Gunnoe

So far, public health officials havent shown much interest. However, lawyers at a firm that represents the National Mining Association were interested. Attorneys Clifford Zatz, William Anderson, Kirsten Nathanson and Monica Welt posted a blog entry suggesting that the researchers failed to account for "consanguinity," i.e., inbreeding.

Invoking the stereotype of the inbred hillbilly allows the coal industry to marginalize and dehumanize Appalachians and downplay the deadly impacts that mountaintop-removal mining has on our air, water, land and people.

The post set off a firestorm of criticism and the law firm Crowell & Moring soon removed the posting from its website. Despite the bad press the law firm received, public officials still werent showing much interest in the study. Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin told the Charleston Gazette three weeks after the study was published that he hadnt looked into the findings. "Theres reports every day on something causing some kind of illness," he told the Gazette.

Similarly, in Washington, DC, lawmakers were doing their utmost to ignore the study, and some there were hard at work on a horrifying House bill that would gut the Clean Water Act and strip EPAs regulatory powers over mountaintop removal.

In a legal analysis of the bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Nick Joe Rahall (D-WV) and John Mica (R-FL), the EPA said the bill "would overturn almost 40 years of federal legislation by preventing the EPA from protecting public health and water quality."

So, some folks, including Vern Haltom, Rob Goodwin and Bo Webb from Coal River Mountain Watch, OVECs Boone County organizer Maria Gunnoe, Mikey and Nina McCoy, Matt Sherman, Mari-Lyn Evans, Jordan Freeman, Antrim Caskey and Mike Roselle, traveled to DC the week of July 11 with 500 copies of the MTR and birth defects study.

They held a press conference on July 13 in Rep. John Yarmuths office (D-KY), where they called upon people and organizations everywhere to sign an Appeal to Action for an immediate moratorium on MTR and an investigation into the coal industrys activities and the real potential of crimes against humanity. (Sign the Change.org petition: chn.ge/qcIeg7.)

That day and the following morning, with the help of members of Restoring Eden and Christians for the Mountains, the group hand-delivered the 500 copies of the study to legislators offices.


Please call Rahall at (202) 225-345, Rockefeller at (202) 224-6472 and Manchin at (202) 224-3954. Tell them they must end mountaintop-removal mining and protect pregnant mothers living in West Virginia. If you want to go a step further, also contact Rep. Shelly Moore Capito (R-WV) at (202) 225-2711 and Rep. David McKinely (R-WV) at (202) 225-7564 with the same message.

On the afternoon of July 14, some of the Appalachian entourage witnessed a House Oversight Committee hearing. Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment attorney Joe Lovett testified. Seated nearby were WV Coal Association vice-president Chris Hamilton, "Friends of Coal" mouthpiece Roger Horton, John Swilley of Patriot Coal, and Tom Mackall of Sterling Coal Mining.

Given that line-up, its obvious that Lovett was one of only a few witnesses at the hearing to defend the agency, although he did say EPA should be doing far more to make certain the coal industry follows the law. To read about Lovetts testimony, go to bit.ly/pIrgMy.

The EPAs Nancy Stoner told the committee:

"In 2010, an independent, peer-reviewed study by two university professors found that communities near degraded streams have higher rates of respiratory, digestive, urinary and breast cancer. That study was not conducted in a far-off country. It was conducted in Appalachian communities, only a few hundred miles from where we sit today.

"A peer-reviewed West Virginia University study released in May concludes that Appalachian citizens in areas affected by mountaintop mining experience significantly more unhealthy days each year than the average American.

"In addition to health studies, peer-reviewed science has increasingly documented the effects of surface coal mining operations on downstream water quality and aquatic life. Peer-reviewed studies have found elevated levels of highly toxic and bioaccumulative selenium, sulfates and total dissolved solids in streams downstream of valley fills."

Its obvious Rahall and other West Virginia officials dont have those same priorities. Rahall continues to defend his House-passed legislation that would enable more mountaintop removal by taking away the EPAs authority to enforce the Clean Water Act.

As WOC goes to print, West Virginias senators, Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin, have refused to discuss the MTR and birth defects study with Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward, Jr.

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