Fewer Mountaintops, More Birth Defects

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

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis and more, subscribe to Mother Jones' newsletters.


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.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

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.