CDC doesn’t deliver on reported promise to probe health effects of surface coal mining, but two other federal agencies are tackling it

When Shaping Our Appalachian Region was formed to help improve and diversify the economy of Appalachian Kentucky, one of the 10 working groups on issues was about health, which is not good in the region.

As the working group held 16 meetings around the region, it heard repeated concerns about the health impacts of surface coal mining, which has evolved from small contour-strip mines around hillsides to huge mines that take the tops off of mountains.

At every meeting, someone brought up the West Virginia University research that showed a correlation between poor health and surface mining, such as increased rates of cancer and birth defects, according to Dr. Nikki Stone, a University of Kentucky dentist in Hazard.

Dr. Nikki Stone (Photo by Mimi Pickering, Appalshop)

“It was something that people were afraid to talk about, but it came up over and over, and it ended up at the top of our list,” along with a coordinated health program in schools, Stone told Benny Becker of West Virginia Public Broadcasting. “In its final report, the working group advised that SOAR should ask a federal agency for help studying the issue,” Becker notes.

But when SOAR published the working groups’ ideas a few weeks later, it listed only the “shortest-term recommendations” and did not include the mining study. At the health session of SOAR’s “Strategy Summit” in May 2015, Dee Davis of the Whitesburg-based Center for Rural Strategies asked the moderator/presenter, Jennifer “Jenna” Seymour of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, what if anything was being done about the recommendation. Seymour replied that she wasn’t aware of it. But when questioned about it, she said that she had heard about it.

Davis told Becker that CDC Director Thomas Frieden told the working group when it presented its recommendations that if they made a request the CDC would investigate. “Davis said that as far as he knows, that was the last time anybody from the CDC acknowledged the request. The CDC recently confirmed that the agency is not engaged in any such research,” Becker reports. “It’s not clear where exactly things got stalled, but SOAR Executive Director Jared Arnett said there’s a reason why the group tends to steer clear of environmental issues.”

“It’s about uniting, and a lot of things that may not be a part of SOAR that people want to be a part of SOAR are very divisive,” Arnett told Becker. He said earlier that the group would focus its health efforts on substance abuse, obesity and diabetes.

Davis told Becker, “If we want our talent to be part of what turns our region around, then it’s not really going to help us to sweep big questions about cancer and birth defects under the rug. . . . It’s about building an economy in a place,” Davis said, “and part of that is making sure that our communities are places people want to live.”

But while CDC hasn’t acted, two other federal agencies have. At the request of the state of West Virginia, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement gave the National Academy of Sciences $1 million to examine existing research, primarily done by Indiana University‘s Michael Hendryx when he was at West Virginia University. “Another study, from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, was announced last year, and has already produced a draft,” Becker reports. “NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum recently visited eastern Kentucky and said she expects that study will be released within the year.”

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