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Save the Babies: Stop Mountaintop Removal Mining

A major new scientific study shows significantly higher rates of birth defects in areas of heavy mountaintop removal mining, even after controlling for a range of other contributing factors. The study found that living near a mountaintop removal site poses a much greater risk to unborn babies than smoking during pregnancy. More than double the risk!

Says the study: "For babies born specifically with defects of the circulatory or respiratory system, smoking increased risk by 17 percent, and living in a mountaintop mining area increased risk by 181 percent. Living in a mountaintop mining area was a bigger risk for birth defects than smoking."

At this point, there have been numerous scientific studies on the environmental destruction caused by mountaintop removal mining. Mountains are torn down and destroyed, biodiverse forests are cut down and cleared out, streams are obliterated, waters across Appalachia are contaminated, and drinking water supplies are poisoned. But even more upsetting than the barren moonscapes is the fact that the people are being poisoned.

Several previous scientific studies on the health effects of coal mining and of mountaintop removal coal mining on the people of Appalachia point to unacceptably high mortality, early deaths, and high cancer and disease rates.

But this is the first study linking the region's extremely high rate of birth defects to mountaintop removal mining.

It's a grand indictment of the coal mining industry, which is putting tremendous resources into special interests, lobbies, and campaign funds in efforts to block science-based regulations. They have considerable friends in Congress who are doing their best to beat down and roll back clean water safeguards in Appalachia.

Understandably, this new science is creating anxiety for families in the region -- many of whom already were keenly aware that they are getting sick from the pollution. Any parent will tell you that it's one thing to fear you are going to get cancer because of the water you drink and the air you breathe, but it's quite another to fear for your child, especially before your baby is born. It's also a different story entirely to watch your child struggle with a sickness that could last his or her whole lifetime, or worse, shorten his or her life.

So how did the coal industry react to this study? A bunch of coal industry lawyers tried to discredit the science and claim the real reason for the birth defects is not the contaminated water and air from mountaintop removal but "consanguinity," or inbreeding. Ken Ward Jr. at the Charleston Gazette broke this story, which has rightfully led to an uproar from Appalachians.

Ken Ward went the distance in his reporting, surfacing a study that refutes any claim of high "consanguinity" in Appalachia, explaining that not only is this coal industry claim offensive, it's just plain untrue.

The whole thing reminded me of an important study (with a great title) by anthropologist Robert Tincher, “Night Comes to the Chromosomes: Inbreeding and Population Genetics in Southern Appalachia.” Based on 140 years’ worth of marriage records, the study concluded that “inbreeding levels in Appalachia … are neither unique nor particularly common to the region, when compared with those reported for populations elsewhere or at earlier periods in American history.”

While succeeding to be at once incorrect and also deeply offensive, these coal industry attorneys also managed to pick up a good deal of national attention for their claims:

Rolling Stone lambasted their insult today:

Think about this for a moment. From the industry's point of view, the problem is not that coal companies blast the top off mountains, turning the area into a moonscape and polluting the air and releasing toxic chemical into what's left of the local streams and aquifers. It's that the people who live near the mines are too cozy with their cousins.

The Atlantic crowned the attorneys' move the "Worst Memo of the Year, Inbreeding Edition":

And that's not a charge taken lightly in West Virginia! Crowell & Moring hastily removed the offending memo from its website. But not before quick-thinking Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward Jr. preserved a copy. You can read his story here and download the memo here (Word file).

And Mother Jones blogged about it today as well, saying the coal lawyers were employing a "discredited stereotype" that is sure to anger people in Appalachia.

And that it did. Today, several coalfield citizens put out a humanitarian call for an end to mountaintop removal mining, for the sake of all the babies of Appalachia. Tomorrow, they will come to the U.S. Capitol to deliver this message to our nation's leaders.

We can only hope their message reaches those in the House who will soon vote on a dirty-water bill that would make it easier for coal companies to blow up mountains, dump their toxic pollution in community water supplies, and put more babies in danger.

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