IU Bloomington researcher testifies about health risk of mountaintop mining

  • May 14, 2015


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Mountaintop removal coal mining causes serious air and water quality problems and contributes to poor health and premature death for people who live near mining sites in the Appalachian region, an Indiana University public health expert told a congressional committee today.

Michael Hendryx, professor of applied health science in the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington, testified today in Washington, D.C., before the House Natural Resources Committee Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources. He spoke in opposition to H.R. 1644, which would block the federal government from implementing new stream-protection buffer rules.

“Our research has shown that people who live near mountaintop removal are at higher risk, compared to people living farther away, for a wide set of health problems,” he said. “We see, for example, that rates of lung cancer are higher in the mountaintop removal communities. We have also found higher death rates from heart disease, lung disease and kidney disease.”

Mountaintop removal mining occurs in forested areas and involves the use of explosives to loosen rock and soil over the coal. Draglines remove hundreds of feet of rock and soil, burying valleys and streams beneath overburden. Stream buffer rules are not properly enforced, Hendryx said, and water that emerges from the base of the fills is highly contaminated with sulfates, metals and other chemicals.

Hendryx and his research collaborators have published 30 studies in peer-reviewed journals documenting environmental and public health issues in Appalachian mining communities. The staff of Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., ranking minority member of the panel, invited Hendryx to testify because of his extensive research experience on the topic.

One of the most important studies, he said, was an examination of birth defects based on analysis of almost 2 million birth records over an eight-year period, controlling for other risk factors such as mother’s age and smoking and drinking behaviors.

“We found that mothers who lives in a mountaintop removal areas during their pregnancy had significantly elevated risk of delivering a baby with a birth defect,” Hendryx said. “One of the most common forms of birth defects is heart defects, and we found that mothers’ risk of a baby with a heart defect was 181 percent higher compared to mothers who did not live in mining areas.”

In another study, the researchers brought dust from mining and non-mining communities into the lab and exposed human lung cell lines to the dust. Dust from mining communities caused cellular changes indicative of lung cancer development, but dust from non-mining communities did not.

He said H.R. 1644 is “an unnecessary delay and a threat to human health,” and he called instead for stronger rules and enforcement to prevent the dumping of mine wastes into streams. (Indiana University as an institution has no position on the legislation).

Hendryx began researching health effects of mountaintop removal mining as a faculty member at West Virginia University. He has been a professor at the IU School of Health-Bloomington since fall 2013.

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