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West Virginia to Consider Health Impacts of Mountaintop-Removal Mining

PHOTO: The state of West Virginia says it now will consider the findings of numerous studies that have linked mountaintop-removal mining to a large number of serious health problems. Photo credit: SouthWings/Vivian Stockman.
PHOTO: The state of West Virginia says it now will consider the findings of numerous studies that have linked mountaintop-removal mining to a large number of serious health problems. Photo credit: SouthWings/Vivian Stockman.
March 19, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - In what could mark a significant shift, the state of West Virginia says it will now take into account studies showing health impacts tied to mountaintop-removal mining.

For years, regulators have resisted considering studies showing elevated coalfield health problems, but this week the directors of the state health and environmental departments said that would change. Environmentalists and researchers say the shift is welcome, but long overdue.

Rob Goodwin, a technical mining analyst, says there now are about two dozen peer-reviewed studies showing health impacts of mountaintop-removal mining.

"In southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia birth defects, respiratory and heart diseases are much higher than the national average," says Goodwin. "There's even studies out there about mental well-being."

The mining industry argues the health issues have other causes. Goodwin points out those health problems don't show up in areas within those same regions that do not have mountaintop-removal mines.

Researchers have been hesitant to say how mountaintop-removal mining may cause health problems, but Goodwin says they are now focusing on tiny particles of rock thrown into the air by the massive explosions at the strip mines.

"These particulates, silica and heavy metals, have been found at greater levels in areas where this type of mining is occurring," he says. "And at lesser levels where it's not."

Goodwin says it's well-known that breathing these extremely small particles can cause all sorts of health problems. He says it could be similar to the silicosis that killed hundreds of workers who drilled the Hawks Nest Tunnel in the 1930s.

"Absolutely, the easiest one to understand is the silica dust," says Goodwin. "There's silica in just about every mountain in West Virginia. It may not be as severe as what they encountered in the Hawks Nest Tunnel, but it's there."

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV