Mountaintop removal project (source: DeSmogBlog)

“The prevalence rate ratio (PRR) for any birth defect was significantly higher in mountaintop mining areas compared to non-mining areas … after controlling for covariates. Rates were significantly higher in mountaintop mining areas for six of seven types of defects…” concludes a new study that analyzed nearly 2 million central Appalachia birth records. The radically destructive practice of mountaintop removal, which has been called ‘strip mining on steroids,’ helps to drive global warming, plunders Appalachian ecosystems and communities, and robs the future for short-term profit and political expedience.

The new study is expensive to purchase online, but here’s the Abstract

Environmental Research, in press, available online 20 June 2011.

The association between mountaintop mining and birth defects among live births in central Appalachia, 1996–2003

Melissa M. Aherna, , Michael Hendryxb, Jamison Conleyc, Evan Fedorkoc, Alan Ducatmanb and Keith J. Zulligb

a Department of Pharmacotherapy, College of Pharmacy, Washington State University, P.O. Box 1495, Spokane, WA 99210, USA

b Department of Community Medicine, West Virginia University, P.O. Box 9190, Morgantown, WV 26506, USA

c Department of Geology and Geography, West Virginia University, Morgantown, P.O. Box 6300, WV 26506, USA


Birth defects are examined in mountaintop coal mining areas compared to other coal mining areas and non-mining areas of central Appalachia. The study hypothesis is that higher birth-defect rates are present in mountaintop mining areas. National Center for Health Statistics natality files were used to analyze 1996–2003 live births in four Central Appalachian states (N=1,889,071). Poisson regression models that control for covariates compare birth defect prevalence rates associated with maternal residence in county mining type: mountaintop mining areas, other mining areas, or non-mining areas. The prevalence rate ratio (PRR) for any birth defect was significantly higher in mountaintop mining areas compared to non-mining areas (PRR=1.26, 95% CI=1.21, 1.32), after controlling for covariates. Rates were significantly higher in mountaintop mining areas for six of seven types of defects: circulatory/respiratory, central nervous system, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, urogenital, and ‘other’. There was evidence that mountaintop mining effects became more pronounced in the latter years (2000–2003) versus earlier years (1996–1999.) Spatial correlation between mountaintop mining and birth defects was also present, suggesting effects of mountaintop mining in a focal county on birth defects in neighboring counties. Elevated birth defect rates are partly a function of socioeconomic disadvantage, but remain elevated after controlling for those risks. Both socioeconomic and environmental influences in mountaintop mining areas may be contributing factors.

Mountaintop removal mining (Photo: nrdc_media_flickr)

Gavin Aronsen reported in Mother Jones on June 22 (“Fewer Mountaintops, More Birth Defects”)

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. …

[T]he 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. …

Meanwhile, on June 22 the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved a fast-tracked bill to strip EPA of its regulatory authority on water pollution, wetlands protection, and mountaintop removal coal mining. Five Democrats joined Republican members in voting for this egregious bill.

EPA, in a legal and technical analysis of this legislation , warned of the tremendously harmful consequences that would follow from gutting federal clean water regulatory authority and essentially overturning the Clean Water Act, which is a fundamental component of U.S. environmental law. The New York Times / Greenwire covered this story (“EPA Warns House Bill Would ‘Overturn’ Clean Water Law”):

EPA said the Mica-Rahall bill would “significantly undermine” the agency’s role of overseeing states’ establishment and enforcement of water pollution limits and permits. It said the measure would hinder EPA’s ability to intervene on behalf of downstream states harmed by pollution coming from a state upstream. And it said the bill would prevent EPA from protecting local communities from ill-conceived mountaintop-removal and similar projects allowed to go forward under Army Corps of Engineers-issued permits.

“This would fundamentally disrupt the balance established by the original [Clean Water Act] in 1972 — a law that carefully constructed complementary roles for EPA, the Corps, and states,” the analysis said. …

Defenders of the agency say that power is necessary to keep up with new scientific understanding of pollution and health effects and to ensure that states, seen by many as more vulnerable to local influence and political pressure, are enforcing rules on their books to protect local and interstate waters. …

Rahall and Mica have both bristled over EPA’s recent actions affecting their home states, including the decision to subject mountaintop-removal mining applications to tougher review. …

Get this extraordinary book:

Plundering Appalachia: The Tragedy of Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

Plundering Appalachia contains a wealth of large-format photos of mountaintop removal operations, from both aerial and ground perspectives, along with strong and illuminating text in essays by multiple authors. Once you look at this and learn about it you will not be able to walk away from it with indifference.

President Obama’s chief of staff William Daley said on June 23 (“Bill Daley: Obama won’t sign anti-EPA bills”)  that the President is “not going to allow any legislation that impedes the need to improve our health and safety,” when asked about proposals to block or delay climate-related regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Mica-Rahall gut-the-Clean-Water-Act legislation is highly unlikely to make it through the Senate to the President’s desk. But giving full and vocal support to strong EPA regulatory intervention to protect human health and the environment from mountaintop removal coal mining must be one additional measure for holding Obama accountable on this pledge.

Earlier posts:

Mountaintop removal rally outside EPA headquarters excoriates ‘King Coal’ Congress members

5 Democratic congressmen join Republicans in committee vote to kill EPA’s clean water authority