Mountaintop Mining Communities: Feeling Verklempt

by Bill Chameides | May 18th, 2011
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 1 comment

A new study finds that people living near mountaintop mining are not doing so well.

Mountaintop mining is one of those hot-button topics in the nation’s political arena. Environmental concerns ranging from water quality to climate change to the simple desire to preserve mountaintops and their forests and inhabitants have led some to call for its total ban. (This point of view, by the way, is very cogently depicted in the documentary The Last Mountain — it’s worth checking out if you can.)

On the other side are proponents of mountaintop mining who claim that the coal is essential to our economic well-being — it’s what allows us to turn on the lights. As for environmental impacts, it’s argued that the mining companies restore the land after removing the mountain (see an earlier post on that topic), and it’s claimed that the practice means jobs and economic development for the people of the mountaintop mining states of West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. (And, judging by this ad by General Electric, we’re talking jobs with lots of sweat but also a whole lot of glamour and titillation. Want to try it?)

Sometimes the debate is portrayed by the proponents of mountaintop mining as an argument between the people who live where mountaintop mining is practiced, who depend upon and therefore support it, and liberal outsiders who don’t really care about these people. The implication: that the people of mountaintop mining communities are better off with mountaintop mining than without.

Really? Keith Zullig and Michael Hendryx of the School of Medicine, West Virginia University, Morgantown, assessed the health-related quality of life of residents of counties where mountaintop mining occurs and compared it to that of residents in the same states but without mountaintop mining. They reported their results in the American Journal of Public Health.

What Is This Health-related Quality of Life About?

What the researchers looked at is essentially a measure of how people feel — good, bad, or indifferent. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), health-related quality of life is “a broad multidimensional concept that usually includes subjective evaluations of both positive and negative aspects of life.” It includes perceptions of physical and mental health and measures of missed work days due to health problems.

One of its key components is that it is self-evaluated and reported through a survey. On the one hand this makes the measure a bit squishy — it’s based on self-perception as opposed to an objective parameter measured, for example, by a medical professional. On the other hand if one is concerned about quality of life, what can be more relevant than a person’s perception of his or her well-being?

Gathering the Data

All well and good but how does one get info on people’s health-related quality of life? The authors used the data from a long-term, nationwide telephone survey called the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, “the world’s largest, on-going telephone health survey system,” according to the CDC, “tracking health conditions and risk behaviors in the United States yearly since 1984.”

I had not known about the system, but it appears to be a treasure trove of easily accessible info. For example, in a matter of a minute or so I was able to access this map showing the distribution of people in the United States who report having “poor general health.”

U.S. residents with poor health. The darker the color, the more frequent the report of “poor” health. State with yellow outline is West Viriginia. (CDC)

Note the remarkable correspondence between where people report being in poor health and the states where mountaintop mining is practiced. Is that because of mountaintop mining or because of some other factor or factors that correlate with both mountaintop mining and poor health?

To answer that question requires a much more sophisticated statistical analysis of the behavioral risk survey. This is what Zullig and Hendryx attempted to do across counties with mountaintop mining, other coal mining or no mining activity. The authors analyzed four core variables from the surveillance survey including self-rated health, number of poor physical health days, number of poor mental health days, and number of activity-limited days all during the last 30 days before the survey for 52 counties in central Appalachia. The study controlled for several independent variables (including age, gender, smoking, body mass index, race/ethnicity, marital status, income, education, and metropolitan residence status).

Mountaintop Mining Implicated

The study results of the authors’ analysis are pretty striking.

“Residents of mountaintop mining counties reported significantly more days of poor physical, mental, and activity limitation and poorer self-rated health. …  Mountaintop mining areas are associated with the greatest reductions in health-related quality of life even when compared with counties with other forms of coal mining.”

The authors recognize that the health outcomes in mountaintop removal counties “partly reflect the chronic socioeconomic weaknesses inherent in coal-dependent economies,” but find that health disparities persist even after controlling for these variables,leading them to suggest that environmental degradation is a major factor in producing these health disparities.

The debate over mountaintop mining will no doubt rage on. But this new paper by Zullig and Hendryx would seem to question the notion advanced by mountaintop-mining proponents that the mining is good for the mining communities.

filed under: climate change, coal, energy, faculty, fossil fuels, global warming, health
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1 Comment

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  1. hebintn
    May 19, 2011

    The ONLY way surface mining is good for the communities in Appalachia is jobs. It has been documented that the number of jobs is inversely proportional to the amount of surface mining in an area… it takes more men to deep mine coal than blast away mountains and scoop up the resulting exposed coal seams. So, jobs are a null point. More, better paying, safer, and environmentally friendly jobs are with reach of Appalachia by using the ridges and mountaintops for solar and wind power… everybody wins, so why are the powers so reluctant to make the switch? In my mind… only one answer… it’s money from big coal to crooked politician and judges.

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