Residents in mining communities are used to layers of coal dust coating every surface, but there was little research on the health effects of this pollution. Now academics in West Virginia are finding residents in mining towns are more prone to lung, heart and kidney disease, and environmentalists hope these findings will help rein in the rush to coal.
GELLERMAN: It’s not just residents who live near coal-fired power plants that can be harmed. Those who reside in mining communities can suffer too, ‘though scientist have conducted little research about them until now. A new study out of West Virginia University finds that people in coal mining communities are much more likely to suffer from lung, kidney and heart disease – even if they never worked in a mine. Environmentalists’ hope the study can help slow the growth of mining in Appalachia. Scott Finn has our report.
[NATURAL SOUNDS, BULLDOZER BEEPING]
FINN: For years, dust blew off stockpiles of coal and rained down upon the little town of Sylvester – a tiny community of neat, one-story homes squeezed between a steep mountain and the Coal River in southern West Virginia.
In 2001, some residents of Sylvester, fed up with the dust, sued mining company Massey Energy, and eventually, the company was forced to cover one of those coal piles. Now a huge, white geodesic dome looms like a spaceship over the town.
[NATURAL SOUNDS, COAL TRUCK PASSING]
FINN: But it hasn’t stopped the dust from the other piles of coal, or the huge trucks that travel the main road.
That’s why Michael Hendryx, a West Virginia University researcher, is visiting Sylvester - to measure the level of air pollution.
HENDRYX: This is a what you call a shoestring operation.
[SQUEAKING TRAIN WHEELS]
FINN: Today, Hendryx is standing on the porch of a house about 1,000 feet from a facility where they crush and prepare the coal to be transported. A coal train inches along nearby.
HENDRYX: What I’m trying to do is just homemake a little protective device that will hang this air monitor so it will be protected from the rain, but will also allow a free airflow into the monitor, so we can record the level of particulate matter that’s in the air around here.
[SQUEAKING TRAIN WHEELS]
FINN: He takes an air quality monitor – it’s about the size of a hardback book – and places it in what looks like a metal cage.
FINN: And where did you get this wire here…
HENDRYX: That’s a toilet roll holder that I bought at Wal-Mart. [LAUGHS]
[SQUEAKING TRAIN WHEELS]
FINN: Then, he wires the entire contraption, upside down, from a rafter on the porch. It will measure the amount of particulate matter – basically, coal and rock dust particles – in the air.
This is phase two of Hendryx’s research. In phase one, he compared the rate of disease in West Virginia’s coal mining counties to counties with no mining. He made sure to take into account any health differences based on things other than coal, such as smoking rates, education and income.
Hendryx found that people in coal mining communities have a 70 percent increased risk for developing kidney disease, a 64 percent increased risk for developing chronic lung disease, and are 30 percent more likely to report high blood pressure. His work was published recently in the American Journal of Public Health.
Men and women are equally affected - and since most coal miners are still men, he says the results support his working hypothesis - that exposure to coal pollution causes higher rates of disease, not just for coal miners, but for everyone in the community.
Now, Hendryx is measuring the levels of air pollution around coal facilities.
FINN: After he hangs the air monitor in place, Hendryx goes inside Elizabeth Casto’s house and sits on her powder blue couch. He tells Casto and her sister, Pauline Canterberry, about some early results from his air monitors in Sylvester.
HENDRYX: …he found that the levels of particulate matter were highest as you were closer to the facility, and falls off as you move away.
[AMBIENCE OF HOUSE]
FINN: Casto and Canterberry are part of a group that fought the coal plant in court and forced Massey Energy to build the strange geodesic dome. It’s how they earned their nickname: the Dustbusters.
HENDRYX: So there’s evidence that the levels of air pollution are in fact impacted by the activities of the mining industry that’s going on.
CANTERBERRY: We know that. We definitely know it out here. (laughs)
HENDRYX: Well, we all know it, but we have some evidence now.
CANTERBERRY: We’re had some huge doses of it…
FINN: The connection between coal pollution and disease seems obvious to coalfield residents. Casto’s husband, Perry, was a disabled miner with black lung – and the dust in the air aggravated his disease.
CASTO: Just choked himself to death, and his heart doctor said, “No way.” So we went back to Florida. He just begged us to bring him home. What are you going to do? There’s just no way.
FINN: Perry Casto died in 2003 - in Florida instead of his hometown of Sylvester.
Hendryx is trying to move from personal experiences like this to concrete evidence – evidence that environmentalists have been waiting for. Joe Lovett, executive director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment in Lewisburg, West Virginia, says the research could be crucial in future lawsuits challenging the coal industry.
LOVETT: Lawyers will usually represent people for that kind of thing, particularly if they think that liability is easily established. So the kind of work that’s going on might show that there’s injury occurring and that brings lawyers around.
If I lived in a community and somebody wanted to build a prep plant near me, I would do everything I could to try to keep that prep plant out of my neighborhood.
FINN: In fact, Hendryx is talking to lawyers for a community in Kentucky that’s fighting a proposed coal preparation plant like the one in Sylvester. They’re demanding the coal company build the plant farther from town – or at least take steps to control the dust.
Environmentalists say that lawsuits are the only way to get the coal industry’s attention. But Hendryx is getting no support from state officials for his research. West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, a former coal broker, says his administration doesn’t have the resources to help.
A spokesman for the West Virginia Coal Association did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
[SOUNDS OF TRAINS]
FINN: Outside her sister’s home, Pauline Canterberry points at the steep hills surrounding her town, and from east, west, north and south, surface mines are creeping closer.
CANTERBERRY: Sylvester right now is the central point. It’s coming this way. That way there is Prenter, and you know what Prenter is. It’s one permit after another.
FINN: Coal prices are at record highs, and since 2003, production is up ten percent in West Virginia.
Canterberry and the other dustbusters are looking for ways to slow down the onslaught – and they’re hopeful that Hendryx’s research is just the ammunition they need.
For Living on Earth, I’m Scott Finn in Sylvester, West Virginia.
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