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Clean coal not so much: a new study from West Virginia University links dust from mountaintop removal coal mining to lung cancer in nearby communities.


Another Poke In The Eye For Clean Coal

Clean coal not so much: a new study from West Virginia University links dust from mountaintop removal coal mining to lung cancer in nearby communities.

This one’s gotta hurt: a new study from West Virginia University provides new evidence of a link between the spate of mountaintop removal coal mining operations in Appalachia and the risk of lung cancer in nearby communities. Despite industry efforts to pitch the “clean coal” image, the new report comes on top of other recent studies connecting coal mining with continuing, and in some cases increasing, health risks for coal communities. And that’s not even the real clean coal kicker.

clean coal lung cancer WVU study

Image: The Italian Voice via, cc license.

The Real Clean Coal Kicker

The real kicker about clean coal is that the US coal industry has been serving the export market, and that’s especially true of the industry in Appalachia. Whatever human pain and suffering is involved in getting “clean coal” out of the ground, the full energy benefits are not going to power the US grid.

Here’s what the US Energy Information Agency has to say about Appalachian coal exports in a brief discussion of NYMEX coal futures as of October 10 (those of you who have issues with EIA, go ahead and have at it in the comment thread):

U.S. coal exports, chiefly Central Appalachian bituminous, make up a significant percentage of the world export market and are a relevant factor in world coal prices.

Though buffered by the export market, coal industry stakeholders and their representatives in Congress have been quick to point fingers at new EPA regulations for coal fired power plants as the cause of shrinking domestic demand.

However, analysts and insider documents make it clear that the picture for US coal production is facing a number of colliding challenges. Among other factors, a recent coal company investor document cites competition from other, cheaper fuels, namely natural gas.

In any case, as long as the coal export market holds up there won’t necessarily be a loss of coal jobs in Appalachia on account of sluggishness in the domestic market, so there goes your jobs-versus-the-environment argument.


The EPA-as-villain argument also doesn’t hold up from a historical perspective. Industry followers have noted that despite a recent increase in coal production, Appalachia has been bleeding coal jobs for generations. That’s partly due to mechanization in underground mines as well as the increase in mountaintop removal.

According to some studies, coal employment in Appalachia reached a peak of 130,000 in 1940. As of 2011 the figure was less than 22,000, and currently it’s hovering around 14,000.

Looking to the near future, things could get worse without any additional moves by EPA. Specifically, the export market that fueled the mountaintop removal boom in Appalachia is also beginning to soften as the global market swings down.

Adding to the industry’s trouble, local organizations have been gaining traction in their efforts to push mountaintop removal into the existing EPA regulatory framework for protecting the state’s other natural resources. In the latest development, a federal court upheld EPA’s authority to veto an Army Corps of Engineers permit that had been granted to Arch Coal for its proposed Spruce No. 1 mountaintop removal coal mine.

Speaking of Arch Coal, take a look at their “Get the Facts” page touting clean coal, and give us a holler in the comment thread if you spot anything about local impacts of coal mining.

Clean Coal And Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

Headline-grabbing episodes like the 2010 Massey disaster rare enough to cause just a blip on the clean coal screen, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep the lid on the long term health and economic impacts of the coal industry, especially with the advent of mountaintop removal coal mining.

The new West Virginia University mountaintop removal study is a case in point (h/t to our friends at The Hill for the lead).

For those of you new to the topic, mountaintop removal involves literally blowing the tops off of mountains to get at underlying coal. Damage to nearby streams buried under waste rubble is the impact that has gained the most attention, but the operation also raises a considerable amount of dust.

As reported by Ken Ward, Jr. at the West Virginia Gazette, the first-of-its kind study involved collecting dust samples from communities near mountaintop removal operations, and examining the impact of that dust on human lung cells.

The study was designed to replicate chronic exposure over a period of 8-1/2 years, and it appears to support epidemiological studies connecting mountaintop removal with higher incidence of lung cancer in nearby communities.

Here’s a few snippets from the study abstract (see link above — PMMTM is shortspeak for dust, or particulate matter, from mountain top mining):

Our results show that chronic exposure… induced neoplastic transformation, accelerated cell proliferation and enhanced cell migration of the exposed lung cells.

Xenograft transplantation of the PMMTM-exposed cells in mice caused no apparent tumor formation, but promoted tumor growth of human lung carcinoma H460 cells…

Chronic exposure to the main inorganic chemical constituent of PMMTM, molybdenum but not silica, similarly induced cell transformation and tumor promotion…

For the record, the National Institutes of Health published a county-level study in 2008 noting a recent increase in lung cancer in Appalachia. It found that from 2001-2004, lung cancer mortality was higher in counties with intensive coal mining, after adjusting for other socio-economic factors.

For a good rundown of other recent studies linking coal mining to cancer, decreased life expectancy, and other poor outcomes, check out I Love Mountains, a project of the advocacy organization Appalachian Voices.

Our friends over at The Hill have also taken note of recent reports that severe black lung disease is back with a vengeance in central Appalachia, reversing a long term decline dating back to the 1970’s.

We’re not going to pile any more baggage on to clean coal, except to note that we haven’t even gotten to the coal ash disposal problem.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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