Frustration sets in as study of coal mine health ended
GLEN DANIEL, W.Va. — Chuck Nelson spent his life in this corner of Appalachia, working for years in the coal mines, a good job in the economically depressed area. But he says the industry that helped him earn a living cost him his health, and his wife’s, too.
The 61-year-old Nelson blames his kidney and liver disease on the well water he drank for years, and his wife’s more severe asthma on dust and particles from surface mines near their home.
Some of his neighbors agree and say surface mining in the mountains has been a primary culprit for various health problems. Some studies agreed with them but in the end were inconclusive. A new federal study was supposed to provide the most comprehensive review to date, but the Trump administration, a coal industry advocate, suspended it three months ago, citing budget reasons.
Nelson and his neighbors weren’t surprised; a previous federal study was canceled, too. The suspension feeds the mistrust they long have harbored for politicians who routinely side with businesses: If the study “comes out negative against the coal industry, it’s swept under the rug, and the funding’s stopped by these politicians who cater to the coal industry,” Nelson said.
Studies and experts agree on some points: Mountaintop mining can release coal dust into the air that is carried on the wind. Debris from surface mines can harm streams, and the coal slurries from underground mines can seep chemically treated waste into groundwater.
“With environmental damage or environmental issues, the problem is that most diseases that we are now concerned about are long-term diseases that take decades to appear,” said David Rosner, Columbia professor of sociomedical sciences.
Rosner, a member of the organization overseeing the extensive mining study but not directly involved, said the canceled review would have been crucial. “The science has actually created doubt rather than certainty about cause,” he said. “What this becomes in the hands of politicians is an excuse for inaction.”