By John McFerrin
Four years ago we were treated to a series of television ads featuring dancing bugs, the bugs that critics of mountaintop removal strip mining were supposedly dedicated to saving. The ads made the unsupported claim that valley fills do nothing to permanently damage the habitats of aquatic insects. The subtext of the ads was ridicule of regulation of this kind of mining. Who in their right mind, the ad implied, would jeopardize the foundation of the state’s economy to save a bunch of bugs? As cute as the bugs (or at least their TV commercial dancing version) might be, why should society do anything to try to help them?
In addition to their factual inaccuracies (the bugs reported that valley fills didn’t cause them any hardship), the commercials were based upon a false assumption. They assumed that the bugs existed in isolation. Even were they to be wiped out, the commercial implied, there would be no great loss to society. Why bother regulating mountaintop removal strip mining just to save a bunch of bugs?
Such an assumption ignores the basic principal of ecology: it is all connected. Natural systems only work when they have all their parts. Start eliminating some parts-be they bugs, birds, bees, whatever-and the rest of it won’t work.
The Environmental Protection Agency recognizes this. In the Mountaintop Mining Valley Fills in Appalachia Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement it said:
Most of the streams discussed in this PEIS are considered headwater streams. Headwater streams are generally important ecologically because they contain not only diverse aquatic assembledges, but some unique aquatic species. Headwater streams also provide organic energy that is critical to fish and other aquatic species throughout an entire river.
The judicial system recognizes this, treating it as a fact accepted by all sides. In one of the cases on the legality of one aspect of mountaintop removal strip mining, one of the judges remarked
Today’s decision will have far-reaching consequences for the environment of Appalachia. It is not disputed that the impact of filling valleys and headwaters streams is irreversible or that headwater streams provide crucial ecosystem functions.
At the time the commercials came out, there was a reaction from those who lived in communities where the mines were located. Typical was that of James Tawney, a West Virginia Highlands Conservancy member who wrote to The Highlands Voice:
I want to let everyone know that the other habitat that we’re fighting for is our habitat. You know, those of us who live with a valley fill in our backyard, or a slurry impoundment hovering above our communities, homes and schools, or have lost our well water because of blasting. That’s whose habitat we’re trying to save!
Now, four years later, the research has caught up with what the people knew all along: it is not just about bugs. The scientific evidence is piling up associating living near mountaintop removal sites with birth defects, low birth weight births, cancer, poor physical health, poor mental health, cardiovascular difficulties, and pulmonary difficulties. This may not be news to the people who live there.
What is new is the nature of the evidence. For years, if not decades, people in mining communities have been sitting around in their living rooms saying, “Sure is a lot of cancer around here.” Now we have careful study by serious researchers confirming that, yes, there is a lot of cancer around here, more than there is in communities not occupied by mountaintop removal mining. The same is true for the other health effects. The studies are published in academic journals, the kind of journals where articles are reviewed by other qualified researchers, a process designed to weed out reports of flawed studies or unsubstantiated claims. One of the more prominent researchers, Dr. Michael Hendryx, calls the epidemiological evidence of adverse health effects “overwhelming.” (See story on the facing page).
The studies do not answer the question of the exact mechanism by which the mining causes the health effects. They don’t say whether the disease is a result of bad water, bad air, noise, all of these, or something else. They just say that people who live near mining are less healthy than similar people living in similar communities where mining is not present.
In other words, what people have said all along is true: opposing mountaintop removal strip mining is not just fighting to save bugs.
Old commercials never die; they just move to Youtube. To see the bug commercials, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&NR=1&v=8ahRleExjY4 and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_fxsg601tuA . The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition has collected studies on the health impacts of living in a community occupied by mountaintop removal mining. For links to the studies, go to http://www.ohvec.org/issues/mountaintop_removal/articles/health/index.html