GUY RAZ, HOST:
On the show today - ideas about Accessing Better Health. And for many people who live in coal mining towns in Appalachia, being sick is the norm.
MICHAEL HENDRYX: Well, I remember being in some hollers in West Virginia, and people could look down the street around the small community where they lived and point to one house next to another and say, the person here died of stomach cancer, and the person there died of brain cancer. I ran across those kinds of stories a lot - people just commenting about the degree of illness that surrounded them all the time.
RAZ: This is Michael Hendryx. He's a professor of public health. And Michael spent several years investigating the health impact of a coal mining process called mountaintop removal.
HENDRYX: This type of mining takes place in central Appalachia, which is steeply hilled and also heavily forested. So the first step is actually to clear-cut the forests. And then they will use explosives and heavy machinery to remove up to 800 or more feet of mountain elevation. And they extract the coal this way like layers of a cake, working their way down. The mountain is literally destroyed in the effort to reach the coal seams.
RAZ: And the water - you know, the streams at the base of those valleys are just buried in debris from the blast.
HENDRYX: That's right. And there is still water that comes out from beneath these buried fills. And that water is contaminated, and it remains contaminated for decades to come.
RAZ: Back in 2006, Michael had just started working at West Virginia University, and he was hearing so many stories about cancer and disease in mining communities. So he wondered if there was a connection between people getting sick and mountaintop removal. But when he searched the scientific literature in the U.S., he found nothing. Almost nothing had been published. So Michael began to look into it himself.
HENDRYX: We started with some approaches that were fairly quick and easy and less expensive. We analyzed existing data. And we did some air quality studies in these areas and found, among other things, that the levels of silica were very high in these communities. Silica is a known lung carcinogen. And we found that people who live close to where mountaintop removal occurs have higher death rates for chronic forms of lung disease and heart disease, kidney disease, some types of cancer, most notably lung cancer.
We started to look at some birth outcomes, and we saw higher rates of babies born at low birth weight and higher rates of birth defects for mothers who lived in these mining areas during the time that they were pregnant. We started asking people about the health of their family members and found that people were more likely to report that someone in their household had died of cancer in the last five years or that some other member of their household had had a serious illness within the last year.
RAZ: Yeah. I mean, so once you started to publish your findings, what was the response? I mean, what - I mean, you're in West Virginia. Coal is a powerful force in that state and in that region. What started to happen?
HENDRYX: Well, the coal industry didn't care for our work. I think that's putting it mildly. I became subject to a couple of extreme FOIA requests.
RAZ: Freedom of Information Act.
HENDRYX: Freedom of Information Act, right.
RAZ: Because you worked for a public university, so they said, we want to see all your emails and all this stuff.
HENDRYX: Exactly. And it was an extreme request. I'm all for the Freedom of Information Act, but it was a really extreme and harassing request. And the attorneys at West Virginia University fought it, to their credit. Eventually, it went all the way to the West Virginia Supreme Court, which ruled in our favor - that what they wanted to do was a violation of academic freedom.
There was a major effort at one point where the coal industry invested millions of dollars to support a countermovement, partially in response to my work and also others that were examining the harms of this type of mining, to try to conduct industry-sponsored research to try to show that it wasn't harmful.
Members of government in West Virginia, by and large, are supportive of the coal industry even today. And they were not happy about the work that we were doing, either, and would either try to deny that it was important or pretend they hadn't heard about it and would continue to support the industry.
RAZ: Here's Michael on the TED stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
HENDRYX: I've published over 30 papers on this topic so far. Along with my co-authors, other researchers have added to the evidence. Yet government doesn't want to listen, and the industry says it's only correlational. They say Appalachians have lifestyle issues, as though it had never occurred to us to control for smoking or obesity or poverty or education or health insurance. We controlled for all of those and more.
It may seem strange that there is any controversy over the health effects of mountaintop removal mining, but somehow, this subject has wound up in a scientific and political twilight zone alongside the debate over climate change or the argument years ago about whether or not smoking caused cancer. In this twilight zone, much of the data seems to point to one conclusion. But the economics or the politics or the prevailing public view insists on the opposite conclusion. When you're a scientist and you think you have a valid insight where the health of entire populations is at stake but you find yourself trapped in this twilight zone of denial and disbelief, what is your moral and ethical obligation?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: In just a moment, we'll hear more from Michael Hendryx about how public awareness might be the key to solving this challenge. On the show today, ideas for accessing better health. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas for accessing better health. And before the break, we were hearing from Michael Hendryx about the research he's done that's shown a clear connection between mountaintop removal and its environmental and health consequences on communities living nearby. But despite the scientific evidence he's gathered and despite higher rates of cancer and lung disease in these communities, the industry and even some government agencies have attacked Michael's work.
Someone like you is an expert, and we're living at a time when there is mistrust and dismissal of expert opinion because that is seen as somehow more authentic or more true to popular will. But the consequences of that are death. Like, the consequences of that are people will die because we are being manipulated by hugely powerful forces that don't want us to know the truth about things like public health.
HENDRYX: Boy, is that ever true these days. And I think about mountaintop removal as one example of that. But I think about problems that are going to affect everybody, not just people that live in central Appalachia. Climate change is maybe a great example, and it's just so frustrating. But, you know, there's a saying - I won't be able to remember it exactly - that it's hard to convince people to believe one thing when their livelihood depends on them believing another.
HENDRYX: And I think people can rationalize and come up with excuses. I wonder how - to what extent some of these folks that try to argue it and deny it - how much they even know that it's true, but they would rather continue doing what they're doing because it's what they depend on.
RAZ: I mean, if the people affected by this were wealthy - you know, if mountaintop removal was happening over Manhattan or San Francisco, do you think that it would be allowed to happen?
HENDRYX: No, it would not be allowed. The people that live in these communities do not have a lot of economic or political power. Same is true for people that face other types of environmental threats. We tend to put toxic dump sites and power plants and other polluting sources in poorer areas...
HENDRYX: ...In areas that are populated more likely with - by people of color. Rich neighborhoods are not going to have these. They won't stand for them. They have more pull over their elected officials. So no, I don't believe for a second that mountaintop removal would occur if the coal had been buried under the mountains outside wealthy communities. And if - I've talked to lots of people in West Virginia who recognize that coal is dirty, that it's harmful. It may not really be an ideal choice. But it's what they have, and they feel like it's the only option they have for good-paying jobs. There's not a lot of other opportunities. So people see that it's harmful. It's dirty. But it's what we have, and we have to try to support it. That's a very common mindset.
RAZ: So what do you think we can do to mitigate this problem? I mean, is the only option, from your perspective, to continue to research and to publish research, even if nothing changes?
HENDRYX: Well, it has to go beyond research, of course. There has to be public awareness and public willingness to change. And there has to be some authority behind that from people in positions to do things. There needs to be an explicit investment in the development of sustainable, healthy economies.
HENDRYX: I try to look at a few bright spots that have occurred. There was one, for example, that comes to mind where the EPA under the Obama administration had successfully denied a permit to a new large mountaintop removal site in West Virginia and cited - among other things, cited our research as one of the motivations for that. So it was good to see something like that.
The Democratic national platform before the 2016 election had a plank that explicitly called for the end of mountaintop removal mining because of its public health effects. I was really encouraged to see that. They lost the election, so we don't have that kind of movement that's taking place now. But perhaps it's not too late. Perhaps things can change.
I think people respond better to crisis rather than to an impending problem that they don't experience personally yet. So when the impacts start to hit us in the face more, then I think we'll see a bigger response. And I'm still trying to be optimistic that we'll gets things done. And we're going to face some hard times, but we're going to make change and get through it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: That's Michael Hendryx. He's a professor of public health at Indiana University. You can find his full talk at ted.com.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.