Fewer Mountaintops, More Birth Defects

nrdc_media/<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/nrdc_media/2964379829/">Flickr</a>


A new study linking Appalachian mountaintop removal mining to birth defects offers compelling new evidence of the practice’s impact on human health. The data could spell bad news for coal companies that have resisted efforts by President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency and others to curtail the controversial mining method.

In mountaintop removal mining, companies like Massey Energy (now owned by Alpha Natural Resources) blast apart peaks to get to the coal inside without the need for much manpower. Before demolition, the mountains are stripped of their forests. (A 2003 EPA report (PDF) projected a loss of 1.4 million acres of trees if the mining continued unabated.) Then, dynamite-powered explosions produce waste that’s dumped in valley streams and poisons drinking water in nearby communities.

So it’s no surprise that the practice has long been criticized for its environmental impacts. But the new study “offers one of the first indications that health problems are disproportionately concentrated” in mining areas, West Virginia University associate professor and report coauthor Michael Hendryx said in a statement.

Researchers at Washington State University and WVU pored over nearly 2 million central Appalachia birth records from 1996 to 2003. Their findings are disturbing: Kids born near mountaintop mining operations suffered higher rates of a bevy of birth defects, including central nervous system, musculoskeletal, urogenital and circulatory and respiratory problems.

Still, many politicians in DC and central Appalachia won’t let mountaintop removal mining die without a fight. In West Virginia, where coal brings billions of dollars to the state’s economy, Democratic acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has defended the industry against environmentalists while lashing out at the EPA. And in Kentucky, whose economy also benefits greatly from coal mining, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear humored anti-mining activists who staged a sit-in at his office but remains a supporter of mountaintop removal. Both politicians continue to take heat for their stance, most recently during efforts to defend West Virginia’s Blair Mountain. The results of the birth defects study could increase that pressure.

MORE HARD-HITTING JOURNALISM

In 2014, before Donald Trump announced his run for president, we knew we had to do something different to address the fundamental challenge facing journalism: how hard-hitting reporting that can hold the powerful accountable can survive as the bottom falls out of the news business.

Being a nonprofit, we started planning The Moment for Mother Jones, a special campaign to raise $25 million for key investments to make Mother Jones the strongest watchdog it can be. Five years later, readers have stepped up and contributed an astonishing $23 million in gifts and future pledges. This is an incredible statement from the Mother Jones community in the face of huge threats—both economic and political—against the free press.

Read more about The Moment and see what we've been able to accomplish thanks to readers' incredible generosity so far, and please join them today. Your gift will be matched dollar for dollar, up to $500,000 total, during this critical moment for journalism.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.