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Biden promised to focus on ‘environmental justice.’ So far, that doesn’t include finishing key review of mountaintop removal’s health impacts

Studies of the health impacts of strip mines stopped after President Donald Trump's 2016 election. The Biden Administration hasn't restarted the studies.
Alexa Beyer
Studies of the health impacts of strip mines stopped after President Donald Trump's 2016 election. The Biden Administration hasn't restarted the studies.

ORGAS — LeRoy and Penny Ferrell are unloading groceries under a carport next to their Boone County home. The couple grew up in the area and have lived in the house behind them for the past fifty years. But there’s a lot that’s changed about their community over the years, including the people living there.

“There’s not hardly a day that goes by where we don’t hear someone we know died of cancer,” LeRoy said.

Their daughter, Michell, who lived in a house across the street, died of cancer when she was 29.

“June, she died several years ago,” LeRoy said of a close friend. “Cancer.”

Same with three of LeRoy’s cousins who lived nearby. And LeRoy’s brother Jerry who lived next door to their daughter.

On the mountains dotting the highway across from the Ferrells, strip mines have come and gone, just like people. More than a decade of research has found a relationship between these mine sites and health problems like cancer. And while the Ferrells count their sick family and neighbors, citizen groups are asking the Biden administration to jumpstart a federal study that was aimed at finding more complete answers about mining’s public health effects and — potentially — instituting additional regulatory measures to help coalfield residents.

“People need to know if coal mining is poisoning them. The coal industry needs to know if they are killing people,” the groups said in a lettersent last month to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.

No action from the “environmental justice” Biden administration

For years, study after study has raised questions about the potential health effects of living near mining sites.

Most of the studies were done by Michael Hendryx, formerly of West Virginia University. He found residents living near mountaintop removal sites faced a higher risk of cancer, especially lung cancer but also bladder, kidney, and colon cancer.

“In retrospect, it seems pretty obvious that if you engage in that kind of highly aggressive, destructive surface mining activity right above where people are living, yeah: of course, it’s going to affect them, it affects the water and the air and in their communities,” Hendryx said.

Hendryx also established that the particulate matter found on mountaintop removal sites causes the growth of tumors in cells where most lung cancers develop. He found that children born in mountaintop mining communities are 41% more likely to be born with birth defects than those that don’t live close to strip mines. And if the rates found in his study of two West Virginia communities translate for the rest of the region, an additional 60,000 people have cancer in central Appalachian mountaintop mining communities out of its 1.2 million residents, when compared with the region as a whole.

In response, in 2016 the Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation Enforcement promised a two-year review of existing research. But the study, initiated in the final months of the Obama administration, was never completed. The Trump administration canceled the project the following year. The Biden administration, meanwhile, has publicized its plans to increase spending in communities that disproportionately bear the burden of pollution and neglect. But many Appalachian strip mining communities bear such a burden, and yet there’s still been no progress on the study.

“The Department of the Interior is aware of concerns regarding the link between mountaintop removal sites and health problems,” DOI press secretary Tyler Cherry said via email. He declined to make anyone available to speak, and would not answer a question about whether the administration has any plans to eventually resume the research.

“The Administration has made historic investments in environmental remediation in order to cut down on pollution and create good-paying, union jobs in hard-hit energy communities,” Cherry said, noting the $16 billion from the infrastructure law that will be distributed across the country to address legacy pollution.

LeRoy, Penny, and Sharlon Ferrell’s street in Orgas. Several people have died of cancer on the street alone. Photo by Alexa Beyer

Next door to LeRoy and Penny Ferrell, LeRoy’s sister-in-law Sharlon Ferrell sits on a couch in a wooden sunroom. The windows are wide enough for her to point to all the nearby houses where people have cancer now or have died of it already. But it’s the new bench outside that she uses to conjure the memory of her son, Von, who passed away in a house around the corner at the beginning of the year.

Von was cremated. “But I couldn’t stand the thought of not having something,” Sharlon said. So she got the bench. She fixed her eyes on a spot on the couch until she was ready to speak again.

Her son, who had bladder cancer about fifteen years ago, had had a number of extremely negative experiences at the hospital, and had since seen multiple friends die of cancer in spite of receiving care. When he got sick again — what Sharlon strongly suspects was cancer returning — he didn’t go back to the hospital.

Not everyone is set on a study

In the next hollow over from the Ferrells, Charles Strickland is standing at his screen door.

“They should have done something about the strip job a long time ago,” he said through the screen after unlatching the top half of his front door. The room was lit by a single table lamp against a soggy Sunday evening.

Strickland, too, noted that a number of people in the couple of blocks around him had died of cancer, but when asked if that made him suspicious enough to think a federal review ought to take place, he wasn’t set on it.

“I don’t know what to think, honey. Some say it’s from smoking, some say it’s from something else.”

Cancer can be caused by a number of factors, including genetics, access to health care and lifestyle. Hendryx’s research controlled for these factors, and still found increased cancer cases near surface mine sites. But even so, the coal industry has spent considerable resources to undermine the findings, including suggesting the region’s increased birth defects are due to inbreeding, and a peer-reviewed Yale University study that concluded coal mining wasn’t a cause of health issues on its own.

“That’s what they’ll try to do,” Hendryx said. His studies controlled for smoking, education, poverty, and access to health care. “And even though we have accounted for those things using very well-accepted, standard data analysis methods…they can still kind of just say it anyway, even though it’s just false. And people will seem to like, buy it, I guess.”

If you live in Orgas and haven’t worked for the coal industry, you likely have family members that did or do. It’s not hard to imagine why residents might not want to think the industry is the culprit. Even with all the death, it gave their families their lives first.

But Sharlon Ferrell seems skeptical for a different reason: the number of other environmental issues prevalent in the region.

“If it was a true study — and there are many, many people with cancer I didn’t mention to you — I don’t think they’re gonna find it’s all completely due to strip mines,” she said.

She noted how Boone County isn’t very far from the chemical plants dotting the Kanawha Valley near Charleston, and that her three nephews who lived in the area and died of cancer all worked for the railroad. So did several of her uncles who died the same way.

But in the meantime, there’s no indication the federal government will restart the study of the coal industry’s effect on its neighbors’ health. Cherry at the DOI says the remaining money that would be required for the $1 million study is no longer available to the department now that the study has been canceled — even though the department’s total budget is around $49 billion. And President Joe Biden has still not appointed a director of the OSMRE, which would be the agency tasked with taking action.

It’s not like Sharlon Ferrell is holding her breath either way. Having lost a son, a father, several aunts and uncles, and four nieces and nephews to cancer, she concluded a long time ago that she’ll have to accept what life brings her way and lean on God to get through.

“It’s not easy, honey.”

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