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As coal mining declines, community mental health problems linger

As coal mining declines, community mental health problems linger

By Roberta Attanasio The U.S. coal industry is in rapid decline, a shift marked not only by the bankruptcy of many mine operators in coal-rich Appalachia but also by a legacy of potential environmental and social disasters. As mines close, states, the federal government and taxpayers are left wondering about the costs of cleaning up the abandoned land, especially at mountaintop removal sites, the most destructive type of mining. As coal companies go bankrupt, this has left states concerned taxpayers may have to pick up the environmental cleanup costs. But there are also societal costs related to mountaintop removal mining’s impact on health and mental health. As an immunologist, I reviewed the research literature for specific effects of mountaintop removal mining on the immune system. I did not identify any pertinent information. However, I did find plenty of clues suggesting that health and mental health issues will pose enormous challenges to the affected coal communities, and will linger for decades. Environmental contaminants The communities that reside in proximity to the devastated lands where mountaintop removal mining occurs – some of the poorest in the nation – are concentrated in a 65-county area in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and northeastern Tennessee. They are also hit by the economic downturn caused by the decline of the local coal industry. Healthwise, Appalachian populations suffer disproportionately higher morbidity and mortality compared with the nation as a whole. A study that examined the elevated mortality rates in Appalachian coal mining areas for 1979-2005 linked coal mining to “socioeconomic disadvantages” and concluded that the human cost of the Appalachian coal mining economy outweighed its economic benefits. Results from research published in 2011 show that mountaintop mining areas, in particular, are associated with the lowest health-related quality of life even in comparison to counties with other forms of coal mining. So, what makes mountaintop removal mining such a scourge for human health? To remove the top of the mountains, coal companies use destructive processes. In order to extract the underlying coal seams, a peak’s forest and brush are clear-cut and the topsoil is scraped away. The resulting debris is often set on fire. Then, explosives are poured into huge holes to literally blast off up to 800 to 1,000 feet of mountaintops. Draglines – huge machines able to scoop up to 100 tons in a single load – push rock and dirt into nearby streams and valleys, damaging waterways and life associated with them. The result is not only a devastated landscape and the crushing of entire ecosystems, but also the dispersion in the environment of toxic pollutants. To learn more about the...

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