Richard White, a laid-off miner, drives to a cemetery on a ridge above his home in Twilight, West Virginia. He looks down on the coal-washing plant where he worked for 33 years. He points to the graves of his father and father-in-law, also miners.
All around, hillsides have been sheared. A mountain has been cleared of trees and dynamited. The setting sun illuminates what looks like a golden cloud of smoke.
“Now, you see all the dust in the air up here?” he asks.
White has a reason to be worried about coal dust. He has black lung disease, as did his father and father-in-law.
“My father-in-law, and my father, the doctors brought them out of the mines because of their medical condition,” White said. “They would actually cough up pieces of their lungs, with big handfuls of dust, because their lungs were deteriorating. It wasn’t pretty.”
Coal mining’s risks to public health and environment have long been known. The response of the coal industry has often been that the region’s economy needs the jobs.
However, the economic benefits of coal have been challenged by Michael Hendryx, Director of the Rural Health Research Center at West Virginia University. In the journal of the U.S. Public Health Service, called Public Health Reports, Hendryx calculated that coal mining contributes to up to 10,000 deaths a year across the Appalachian states, including Western Maryland.
All this sickness and death is expensive.
His bottom line calculation: coal mining is actually five times more expensive to the region’s economy than the financial gain, if public health costs are accounted for, according to his paper “Mortality in Appalachian Coal Mining Regions: The Value of Statistical Life Lost.”
And it’s not just miners getting sick, according to Hendryx. Average people are suffering from lung and heart disease caused in part by exposure to coal dust and particles.
He said these environmental health problems are aggravated by growing poverty, caused by layoffs in an economic monoculture. A shift to mechanized mountaintop removal mining has meant that the number of mining jobs has been cut by more than half over the last 25 years.
Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, disputes Hendryx’s calculations.
“It’s a tremendous economic engine for West Virginia in terms of the wages that are paid and the taxes that are paid,” Raney said. “And a great deal of state government’s annual budget depends on the mining of coal.”
But scientists at the U.S. Public Health Service and Harvard reviewed Hendryx’s paper and concluded it is well-founded.
A few miles down the road from his house, stray dogs roam among dozens of abandoned homes. Windows are shattered and doors hang open. A coal company relocated the people of Lindytown so it could erase the mountain that defined the community.
“It’s a ghost town,” White said.
A lifelong coal miner and son of a coal miner, White said it is time for America to move beyond coal and find a fuel that doesn't cause so much damage.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation