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article imageMountaintop removal now linked to over 60,000 new cancers

By Karen Graham     Oct 23, 2014 in Environment
Almost 1.2 million people live in the Appalachia region of the Eastern United States. The region is best known for the mountaintop removal mining (MTR) that is carried out by coal companies to extract the fossil fuel needed to meet our coal demands. .
MTR mining has been practiced in this country since the 1960s. With the 1973 and 1979 petroleum crises, a more economical way of mining coal was needed, one that used fewer workers but removed more coal. This is when MTR coal-mining took off in Appalachia. The method spread even further in the 1990s with the need for even more low-sulfur coal.
What is significant about the increased use of MTR mining in the 1990s is the advent of new amendments to the Clean Air Act of 1963. The 1990 amendment addressed acid rain, ozone depletion and toxic air pollution. It also tightened up emission limits on high-sulfur coal processing. Hence, the race to mine even more low-sulfur coal.
In the process of getting a mountain ready for MTR, coal companies have to remove all vegetation and topsoil. Often, trees are not used commercially, but instead are burned or dumped into nearby valleys. To access the coal seams which are often 600 feet below the surface, requires millions of tons of explosives.
This denuded area used to be a mountain in West Virginia.
This denuded area used to be a mountain in West Virginia.
Screen grab
Huge earth-moving machines with buckets capable of holding 24-compact cars are used to remove the loosened earth. In 2001, the Bush Administration added a change to the Clean Water Act. By doing so, this allowed coal companies to dump "toxic waste" with other debris. Called “overburden” or “spoil,” the debris, including the toxic waste was dumped into nearby valleys. This resulted in the covering up of over 2,000 miles of headwater streams that eventually polluted even more waters.
The damage wrought by Mountaintop Removal Mining
The real damage, other than environmental damage, is the resulting toxic chemicals that are in the "slurry" from processing the coal for delivery to power plants. The slurry, or sludge is a toxic mix of water, coal dust and clay containing toxic heavy metals like arsenic, mercury, lead and chromium. This sludge is dumped into open ponds made of debris from the mining operation.
A slurry  or sludge pond is used to dump toxic wastes after coal is cleaned.
A slurry, or sludge pond is used to dump toxic wastes after coal is cleaned.
Screen grab
By the year 2011, everyone in the MTR coal-mining regions knew without a doubt the environment was being destroyed by the mining operations. Earth Justice refers to MTR mining as "strip mining on steroids." And it is an apt description of the process. Besides devastating floods and natural habitat destruction, some of the country's oldest prime forests have been destroyed. But this is just a part of what has been going on. Worse still, the impact of MTR on the health of people living in the region had been compromised.
The incidence of respiratory diseases associated with the toxic dust created by blasting mountaintops to smithereens began to rise. People began to notice more and more family-members and neighbors were getting cancers. Birth deformities and premature deaths increased.
New study links MTR to over 60,000 cancer cases
A new University of West Virginia study published online Tuesday by the journal Environmental Science and Technology, provides “ new evidence for the carcinogenic potential” of MTR mining's dust emissions and “supports further risk assessment and implementation of exposure control" for the dust.
“A growing body of evidence links living in proximity to [mountaintop removal] activities to greater risk of serious health consequences, including significantly higher reports of cancer,” the study said. “Our finding strengthens previous epidemiological studies linking [mountaintop removal] to increased incidence of lung cancer, and supports adoption of prevention strategies and exposure control.”
The researchers used dust collected from communities near MTR sites in Southern West Virginia. They examined the dust's effects on human lung cells along with investigating a previous study done in 2008. That study showed increased levels of lung cancer in coal-mining communities, even after adjusting for people smoking.
According to EcoWatch, the scientists found that the MTR dust "induced cell changes that indicated development of lung cancer." The study did not “indicate tumor initiation,” but it did show “lung tumor promotion and progression” that indicated the dust is “a health concern as a cancer promoter.”
“It’s a risk factor, with other risk factors, that increases the risks of getting lung cancer,” said WVU cancer researcher Yon Rojanasakul, one of the study authors. “That’s what the results show.”
To me, this is one of the most important papers that we’ve done,” said Michael Hendryx, a co-author of the new paper. “There hasn’t been a direct link between environmental data and human data until this study.” Hendryx points out that this is a definitive study, unlike previous one's that were considered nothing more than "correlations" of illnesses in mining communities. But Hendryx says, "With this study we have solid evidence that mining dust collected from residential communities causes cancerous human lung cell changes.”
More about Mountaintop removal, Cancer rates, Appalachia, Environmental pollution, Birth defects
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