Pres. Donald Trump’s contempt for climate change science is well known. Now we see that his administration has put on hold a study of the connections between mountaintop coal mining and the health of nearby communities—research that was requested by West Virginia health authorities and is being conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. This action demonstrates the president’s disregard for the health of coal miners, their families and their friends.
I have a bit of experience in this area, as a former air pollution regulator. From 2002 to 2010, while a full-time faculty member at the University of Virginia, I was a member of the Virginia State Air Pollution Control Board. Virginia is a longtime coal state, and the board confronted several controversial issues concerning coal-related air pollution. Among them, in 2009, was a case of dust pollution in southwestern Virginia.
In a country hollow in the Appalachian town of Roda, Va., coal trucks were driving along a narrow, steep-sided road leading to and from the area’s surface mines, which have scarred the landscape in every direction. Streams of trucks were raising clouds of dirt in their wakes, as coal dust in their beds and mud caked on the trucks flew into the air. Residents counted 10 trucks per hour, 20 hours a day, on weekdays.
The dust made outside activities intolerable and penetrated inside people’s homes, which were only 10 to 20 feet from the road. Nell Campbell, then 91 years old, said she could not sit on her porch or work in her garden because of the dust. Her grandchildren couldn’t play in the yard. Former coal miner Ronnie Willis, then 70 years old, said he could not open the windows or take walks on the road in front of his house. Willis suffered from emphysema and black lung disease and he worried about the impacts of the dust on his already degraded health. He spoke of the intimidation friends had experienced at the hands of coal companies: “A lot of people in the community are afraid to challenge the companies that are harming our health and well-being. But I am not afraid to stand up for myself and my community.”
Residents’ complaints found no quarter with the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. In 2008 the Sierra Club and a local community organization, the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, sponsored a study to document fugitive dust levels on Roda Road, directly in front of the Campbell and Willis homes. Viney Aneja, a professor of air quality at North Carolina State University conducted the study, which lasted for two weeks. EPA’s particulate matter standard was exceeded 83 percent of the time at Campbell’s house and 50 percent of the time at Willis’s house. Aneja said that in almost 40 years of conducting research on air quality he had never seen such elevated measurements, which he compared with levels found in industrializing nations.
The list of serious health effects from inhalable particulate matter exposures is long and growing. Particulate matter is especially harmful for children, people with respiratory problems (like Willis) and elderly people (such as Campbell). A new Harvard University study involving 60 million people over the age of 65 underscores the dangers of particulate matter exposure and indicates the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality standards are leaving many Americans (especially men, African-Americans and the poor) at risk.
The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s management disputed Aneja’s findings when a regional air quality monitor showed lower levels. Because state agencies tend to place their air quality monitors in population-dense areas, air quality problems in rural areas like Roda can be missed. Even after coal companies reduced particulate matter exposures on Roda Road, the department’s management declined to codify those measure into regulations that would apply to all of Virginia’s mining communities.
The citizens of Roda who were breathing unacceptable levels of coal dust seemed to have little political voice or influence. They pleaded to state officials for help, erecting signs on local roads that said things like, “To: Gov. Kaine, We the people…need help with mud and dust.” Residents of many Appalachian communities already suffer from a host of other illnesses.
Trump’s hypocrisy is breathtaking. He claims to support the interests of coal communities. But he is not interested in knowing about the health effects of coal mining on those who live nearby.
Residents of coal mining areas in Virginia and elsewhere have borne environmental and health burdens so that Americans could build prosperous lives based on electricity fueled by coal. Even as the U.S. reduces its reliance on coal and moves toward other sources of energy, an unstoppable trend that the Trump administration is trying to ignore, we should not forget what the people of Appalachia have given us. A comprehensive health study is the least we can do, and that study should be just the start of generous economic and public health investments in these vulnerable areas.
This editorial contains excerpts from Thomson’s 2017 book, Climate of Capitulation: An Insider’s Account of State Power in a Coal Nation (The MIT Press). These excerpts are used by permission of The MIT Press.