Climate change skeptics, industries in denial, regulators avoiding environmental cleanup… They all sound alike when it comes to evidence of environmental harm. They argue there isn't enough data. They insist the data is skewed. They see no reason to take action on some of the most obvious negative impacts of industrial activity.
Let’s take a look at a study that has linked birth defects to mountaintop removal (MTR) mining –a form of strip mining in which mountaintops are blasted off to reveal coal deposits. Dr. Michael Hendryx, director of research at West Virginia University and co-author of the study, discovered a significantly higher rate of birth defects in MTR areas compared to other mining areas and areas without mining.
The study also shows that, in recent times, MTR is affecting many systems of the body, such as circulatory, nervous and digestive. Although Hendryx acknowledges the behavioral and demographic risks that partially account for these findings, he claims that “a mountaintop removal effect remains.”
This correlation draws criticism from—not surprisingly—the mining industry. The industry questions whether there really is a link between the damaging health effects from MTR and birth defects in Appalachian babies.
The doubts cast upon Hendryx’s study bring to mind the Love Canal disaster in New York, where the industry accused of dumping toxic chemicals into the water supply fought back by challenging the correlation between contaminated water and the high rates of cancers and birth defects in the area. It took more than six years of litigation before litigators had sufficient information and the offending chemical company owned up. Meanwhile, more than half of the children born during that time had at least one birth defect, and many people had suffered a range of unexplained illnesses.
Even if we are unsure about the correlative studies, we have enough evidence in front of us about the effects of industrial activity to know that mountain top mining is hurting the health of the environment and people. As we know, MTR mining has obliterated some of our country’s oldest forests and the wildlife that depend on them. Thousands of miles of streams and headwaters that provide clean drinking water have been permanently buried or contaminated by coal activity. Compacted and eroded mountain soils are increasing the number of flooding and landslides, devastating the lives of Appalachian communities. Moreover, people of Appalachia are exposed to toxic sludge and slurry impoundments that sit in unsafe proximity to schools and homes, which can break during floods and flood communities.
As with the Love Canal, the direct link of MTR to problems like birth defects and cancers is yet to be made—but the indirect linkage is damning. We cannot wait for studies to prove a completely clear correlation before we take action.