By Ken Ward Jr.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Coal mining costs Appalachians five times more in early deaths as the industry provides to the region in jobs, taxes and other economic benefits, according to a groundbreaking new study co-authored by a West Virginia University researcher.

In the latest in a series of papers, WVU researcher Michael Hendryx questions the idea that coal is good for West Virginia and other Appalachian communities, and recommends that political leaders consider other alternatives for improving the region's economy and quality of life.

"Coal-mining economies are not strong economies," Hendryx said in an interview last week. "[Coalfield communities] are weaker than the rest of the state, weaker than the rest of the region, and weaker than the rest of the nation."

Writing with co-author Melissa Ahern of Washington State University, Hendryx reports that the coal industry generates a little more than $8 billion a year in economic benefits for the Appalachian region.

But, Hendryx and Ahern put the value of premature deaths attributable to the mining industry across the Appalachian coalfields at -- by their most conservative estimate -- $42 billion.

"The human cost of the Appalachian coal mining economy outweighs its economic benefits," they wrote.

Their new paper, "Mortality in Appalachian Coal Mining Regions: The Value of Statistical Life Lost," appears in the July-August issue of Public Health Reports. That is the official, peer-reviewed journal of the U.S. Public Health Service, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The journal is online at www.publichealthreports.org, but articles are available only by subscription.

"The reliance on coal mining in some areas of Appalachia constitutes a de facto economic policy: coal is mined because it is present and because there is a market for it," the study concluded.

"However, other economic policies could be developed if reliance on this resource was not in the best interest of the local population."

Hendryx is the research director at WVU's Institute for Health Policy Research and is an associate professor in the university's Department of Community Medicine.

Over the last two years, Hendryx has published at least four other papers that attempted to quantify coal's impact on public health across West Virginia and in the broader Appalachian region.

Previous papers, also published in peer-reviewed journals, found that residents of coal-producing counties are more likely to suffer from chronic heart, lung and kidney diseases and more likely to be hospitalized for certain health problems that are connected to coal pollution.

Hendryx has also reported that coal county residents are more likely to contract lung cancer and generally suffer from excess numbers of premature deaths. In each of his studies, Hendryx has tried to weed out other possible factors -- such as smoking and diet -- to pinpoint coal's possible role in these public health problems.

The newest study concedes that this work still has some limitations.

"Despite the significant associations between coal-mining activity and both socio-economic disadvantage and premature mortality, it cannot be stated with certainty that coal-mining causes these problems," the new study says.

"It is not possible to determine what the economic and public health outcomes would be in these areas in the absence of mining," the study says. "However, given the literature on the impacts of social disparities and the previously documented problems of coal-dependent economies, such a casual link seems likely."

The new study builds on Hendryx's previous work that found excess premature deaths in coal counties compared to other counties in Appalachia.

That work did not definitively blame the coal industry for the excess deaths, but said possible explanations included exposure to coal byproducts such as slurry leaching into water supplies or air pollution effects from mining and coal processing.

Further research is needed in those areas, Hendryx has said.

In the new study, Hendryx and Ahern cited a 2001 University of Kentucky study that valued the economic impact -- from direct, indirect and induced earnings -- of the coal industry in Appalachia at $6.5 billion a year. They adjusted that number for inflation, and added other benefits from various coal industry taxes.

The researchers also factored in the recent declines in coal industry employment.

"The number of coal miners in Appalachia declined from 122,102 to 53,509 between 1985 and 2005," the paper said. "This decline corresponded to increases in mechanized mining practices and the growth of surface mining, which requires fewer employees than underground mining per ton mined."

After these calculations, Hendryx and Ahern came up with a final annual regional economic gain of $8.1 billion.

Next, Hendryx and Ahern calculated a number of excess age-adjusted deaths in coal mining areas, compared to non-coal areas of the region, at between 1,736 and 2,889. Using accepted scientific estimates for the "value of statistical life," that translates to a conservative cost for the region of $41.8 billion a year.

The study is far from a complete cost-benefit analysis of the coal industry, the authors report. But, the things it leaves out, they say, are mostly costs that they haven't been able to completely account for yet.

"They do not consider reduced employment productivity resulting from medical illness, increased public expenditures for programs such as food stamps and Medicaid, reduced poverty values associated with mining activities, and the pros and the costs of natural resource destruction," the study says.

"Natural resources such as forests and streams have substantial economic value when they are left intact, and mining is highly destructive of these resources," the study says.

"For example, Appalachian coal mining permanently buried 724 stream miles between 1985 and 2001 through mountaintop removal mining and subsequent valley fills, and will ultimately impact more than 1.4 million acres.

"Coal generates inexpensive electricity, but not as inexpensive as the price signals indicate because those prices do not include the costs to human health and productivity, and the costs of natural resource destruction."

Hendryx and Ahern conclude, "In response to this and other research showing the disadvantages of poor economic diversification, it seems prudent to examine how more diverse employment opportunities for the region could be developed as a means to reduce socio-economic and environmental disparities and thereby improve public health.

"Potential alternative employment opportunities include development of renewable energy from wind, solar, biofuels, geothermal, or hydropower sources; sustainable timber; small-scale agriculture; outdoor or culturally oriented tourism; technology; and ecosystem restoration," the study says.

"The need to develop alternative economies becomes even more important when we realize that coal reserves throughout most of Appalachia are projected to peak and then enter permanent decline in about 20 years."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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