What happens when a public-health researcher deep in coal country argues that mountaintop mining endangers the entire community? Hint: it doesn't go very well.
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New episodes of tell me something I don't know will start coming Norway on Sunday February nineteenth thanks to listen, you wouldn't think it's a good time to make a bet on coal. As recently as the early two thousands more than half the electricity in the United States came from burning coal. Now it's only a third one. Big reason is competition from cheap natural gas, but also coal, due to its environmental costs, has become heavily regulated over the past couple decades. and yet coal is suddenly having a bit of a renaissance. A recovery in the price of coal has a number of mining firms looking to go public. The election of President Trump also helped. He called for a revival of the industry and criticise President Obama's war on coal. Indeed, just a couple weeks into
office Trump reversed a coal mining regulation that Obama pushed through and his final days today on freedoms, radio, we go down a coal wormhole and we discover surprising fact: legislation meant to cut down, and certain health hazards from coal may have increased other health hazards from coal. Also. What it feels like for an academic could studies is this you to testify a pro coal congressional hearing. You should be embarrassed to be here with a steady like this I'm happy. from W and Y see studios. This is freakin comics, radio, the that explores the hidden side of everything. Here's your host Stephen Gardner,
I'd like you to meet Michael Hendricks me, professor, in the department of applying health science The school of public Health in Indiana, University and applied health science means that your peachy and so on are in what might each day as originally in psychology. I've had a long road to where I am now. I was trained originally in research methods and research design, but for much my career, I applied that too, the kinds of health services problems. It was only fairly recently, and I started to get interested in environmental issues and in the health problems, but the people in the mining communities were experiencing fairly recent, sleeping being around two thousand six, when Hendricks landed a job at West Virginia University in the heart of coal country, he'd, come from Washington State University in Pullman Washington, weak country is research. There was focused on mental health services when I first decided to take the job. I really have any plans
to pursue interests or research interests related to call was something that came about after I move their Hendricks immediately found at West Virginia was different from Washington State in many ways, culturally, politically and of course, geologically miss Cristel good and I am a poet and advocate an entrepreneur Madame's camp I'm fifty and I M from some of Course Virginia Coal is part of the fabric of West Virginia. It does manner. If you're directly in the mines there's an ancillary business tat we all benefit from more connected to this is a rich day, ok There's things out there in the mountains and everything that can really make money and jobs for people. Whether
in a my mom and loading, a coal truck at Dupont, or whether that's my basketball team, in sponsored by friends of coal or you do, however, is everybody is in some way connected to the industry expended to Hendrix's new universe. The West Virginia University would have their annual coal ball football game, the game between West Virginia Marshall every year, just as one example and they had a research centre for on energy on the W campus politicians, were always quick to support and defend the coal industry if they wanted to get real, acted very prone. oh environment there, and it sounds like you, or at least a bit of an environmentalist. When you came to us Virginia well, I've loved the outdoors. I learned how to fly fission hiking in backpacking in such yeah. That's true, which is
to align with any political movement. As we know, there are naturalists and environmentalists see no across all political spectrums, but I am curious what your views were on Cole per se, coming in to debate, you know I really knew almost Think about it. I was one of those people that didn't know how the lights were turned on. Sources. Where I was, I was there Katy myself. At about that time, I happened to come across a book. It was written by a journalist, Jeff Fidel called big coal. and he was doing stories about the important and kind of quiet roll call played and in american life, and he was the and who was describing some of the stories of peace,
well that lived in these mining communities and that's what got means kind of the first knowledge I had about this as a potential issue, and then that lead you to think hey. I should take a look at public health implications of coal mining is, it was. It is direct line. Is that yeah? It's as simple as that? It seemed like a logical neck, stop. Now we should back up here and say that coal mining has changed a great deal in the past few decades. As we noted earlier, industry, has been serious decline, with production falling substantially and with the employment, especially in a place like West Virginia, the Bureau of He bore statistics which groups together mining and logging jobs shows that the sector has fallen roughly forty percent in West Virginia in just the last five years again. There are several reasons for this decline, especially the natural gas juggernaut, but it's also related to something that happened.
decades, earlier in Washington DC in nineteen, eighty nine at the White House, President George W Bush, a major announcement first I'd like to lay on the table my proposals to curb acid rain and cut urban smog and clean up air toxics and second, I won call upon all of you to join me in an acting in the law. A new clean air ACT this year. The original cleaner act dated from nineteen sixty three and it had been amended several times. Bushes, new amendments which took hold in eighteen ninety directly affected the coal industry in coal fired power plants. Sulphur, oxide a by product of burning coal, lowered air quality generally and contributed to its known as acid rain
the new amendments capped sulphur dioxide emissions and established the first large scale, cap and trade programme Michael Hendricks again, the Clean AIR Act it has been successful in reducing acid a pretty significantly and improving air quality from power plants. There's no question about that, but there was an unintended consequence of the new cleaner act normally. It became more a try you have to try to mine, call that before maybe wasn't attractive to mine. This type of coal at lower levels of sulphur, and it was especially plentiful in the mountains of central Appalachia to get it? Minors turned to a process known as mountain top coal removal, rather than burrowing deep beneath the ground for seems of coal mountain top removal is technique that
Bob's literally blowing up mountains. The health hazards of underground mining of the medium and long term are substantial and well established. But what about the health hazards of mountain top removal feet that work in surface mining, even though there's some evidence that they they may suffer some respiratory issues. time is well. The evidence is that that's less data Kristen, underground mining statistics from the West Virginia Office of Minors, health safety and training show that surface mining is indeed much less dangerous than underground mining, at least for the minors. But what about everyone else?
the people living near the mountains that were being blown up for Michael Hendricks, a public health researcher that seemed natural question to ask when he arrived in West Virginia, So, at the time mountaintop removal mining was viewed as how, in terms of environmental impact and lets, say public health impact. I think there was always concerned about its environmental impacts, I mean using explosives to boot to literally blow hundreds of feet off. The mountain tops around where people live. There is large scale deforestation of of existing forests in these areas. There is permanent valley feels that permanently buried several thousand miles of streams in this region. You would hear stories from right,
evidence about the health concerns that they had, but nobody seemed to be investigating the public health impacts of this form of mining. Until we started this line about ten years ago, Hendricks began by reading the literature on the effects of open mining sites, and he was surprised to find that wasn't much and so site, well, one way or the other. This is an area where I can make a contribution. Hendricks began with mortality data from the centres for disease control. It was specific enough that he could identify causes of death at the county level and for specific population groups. so we would merge those data with other data, so we used as a key source information from the Department of Energy on the amount of Oh, that was mind, indifferent counties and we can merge used together along with other kinds of demographic and behavioral risks. To try to. Your stand, whether people who lived in areas with heavier mining had higher mortality rates to find an end
There is a fair amount of statistical manoeuvring to be done. The people in these communities as a general statement, ten, they have lower levels of income. They ten do sometimes engaging in less healthy behaviors. Smoking rates are higher, so we had to try to account for those somehow, but they are very well established. Statistical approaches to be to do that. So we as we look at it more and more, the evidence became our view stronger, that There really was an independent association of Bean and mining communities that I was really to a variety of poor health outcomes, and it was us an effect that was more. Pronounce in areas where surface mining takes place, especially mountaintop removal, mining and the health effects were present for four men and for women and for some children's outcomes, which made us think that it so
more of a community wide issue and not just an occupational exposure issue and talk me through for a moment the mechanics by which you believe mountain top removal and perhaps other coal mining, actually increases mortality and the specific I guess ways in which it as an ill effect on health of as you described it, men, women, children and I guess I'm in utero children as well sure when we first started doing these daddy's. We did not have direct measures Environmental conditions, we only had these correlation all studies that showed poor health outcomes in communities in ways that were not explained by other measures. So Oh, that was a limitation of the earlier studies and more Recently we have been going out and collect. Environmental data from communities. where mining occurs as well as control communities where it does not,
he found evidence for a variety of the environmental problems in these communities. For example, for example, levels of silica crystal and silicon which we think are coming from: removing the rock and soil to reach the coal, which is done through the use of heavy machinery and through explosives, raises levels in these communities and Silica levels in particular, are known to be a toxic and lung tissue, their known to be a contributing factor to lung cancer, and that's one of the most consistent health put the ones that we ve seen in these communities. We ve also see the evidence for elevations in some organic compounds in air samples, Polly sickly aromatic hydrocarbons, which are coming in part from again the court itself from the rock and soil around the core. We think, as well as potentially from some of the diesel products that are used in the machinery and in the explosives. So we think air transport route for them. health problems that exist. We ve also
assured the particle size in these communities, and we found somewhat to our own surprise that the most pronounced difference when you pair mining communities to similar rural communities in West Virginia that don't have mining. The primary difference is in very small particles, What are called ultra finds that can penetrate deep the into lung tissue that are known to be a particular health hazard and those were the the particle sizes that were the most pronounced, We ve done some limited water quality testing and we find some evidence as well for some cholera contaminants in some groundwater samples, higher levels of cod. Tv in water, but we don't know exactly what's causing that, but but there's evidence for some water in
Payments to that are related to the chemicals that are used in the coal extraction and and processing activities. In a nutshell, a whole heap of bad news, Michael Hendricks and his colleagues would go on to publish more than thirty peer reviewed studies that two hendricks at least reached a clear, inclusion or convinced that surface mining and Central Appalachia, especially mountaintop, remove a mining, is an independent, significant risk to public health. The paradox, of course, was it. The problem stemmed in part from the success of the Clean AIR Act, the principal unintended concert points of the Clean AIR Act was to encourage the development of mountaintop removal, coal, mining Appalachia and there strong evidence that this form of mining is harmful, its harmful not only to public health, but its harmful, environmentally and
The people who live in these communities have had to suffer so that others can enjoy cleaner air coming up on finance. Radio. Professor Hendricks goes to Washington, which doesn't go quite as planned. Well, tell you the truth. I was pretty naive I'm Stephen Donor, and this is for economics. Radio, the public health researcher, Michael Hendricks, had discovered an unfortunate chain reaction. The clean AIR act, amendments of eighteen ninety did clean up the air substantially, but they also incentivize a boom in mountain top coal mining, which his researchers
the lead to widespread public health hazards, not just for the people involved in mining, but for anyone living nearby fact is almost any regulation or piece of legislation will have some unintended concert. Since environmental regulations seem particularly susceptible about a decade ago, the United Nations began offering a generous bounty to manufacturers for destroying their stockpiles of a pollutant called Hydra Flora, carbon twenty three: that's a bite. Product in the manufacture of a common refrigerant. The U N was hoping. The manufacturers would be grateful enough to collect their money from the stockpiles and then switch to making different refrigerant. Instead, factories in China and India double down making even more of that refrigerant. Nor decree- even more of the by product and get
or the money, the, U N was handing out or consider the endangered species act. It is meant, of course, to protect species under threat, but there's a good possibility, as one environmental economists puts it, that the endangered Species ACT is actually endangering rather than protecting species. Why? Because a species is often declared endangered months or even years before, its critical habitats are officially designated. This allows time for public hearings and also allows time for developers and foresters to rush in in paved those critical habitats before its illegal to do so. So perhaps we should be too surprised that a law meant to clean up the air from coal pollution has led to a different kind of coal pollution.
that said what should be done about it. Based on his research, Michael Hendricks, went on record saying the appropriate policy would be a ban on mountain top coal removal, some people we spoke with in West Virginia supported. This idea my name's Casey, let's and I'm the singer of the company swords thanks, Ah bales, with a smile on his living in West Virginia, this is an issue that is brought up all the time
now I M pollutes our water is it's killing our mountains? We have a lot of other ways that we can now create electricity. It should absolutely be banned, but that view is hardly Universal Britain's or be twenty. Six, on the one hand, is like an everyday citizen living here. I can say that at least dislike mining because it has a negative impact on my own. From the other hand, I can't speak to the needs and we will have to work the need for minor so to make a living and I can't you know in total equanimity- said that it should be totally banned. Wealth. Tell you the truth. I was pretty naive, Michael Hendricks again I was coming from this. position of being a rational objective.
Person and in my naivete, just moving to West Virginia, not yet really understanding the nature of coal in the state or the political pressures that it could play. I thought people would listen, me and make appropriate responses to the information, and I was quickly relieved that idea within their first result started coming and then the first efforts from the industry in the EU what difference were more or less to ignore it, pretend they had never read it not want to talk about it. I thought people would Since these results- and maybe they politicians would even listen and maybe something could be done, and that was obviously not the case in recent years we ve learned how different industries, tobacco and sugar, for instance. Essentially, CO opted academic researchers to produce results favourable to their Indy,
trees. But here was Michael Hendricks, a newcomer to call country putting our academic research that made the coal industry look bad and which complicated his release. kinship with his university, and I know that the even though the unit West Virginia University to their credit, never pressured me to stop directly. I think that some of the upper level administrators probably receive some pressure to try to make me stop at. That was never an issue for me. I was always allowed to do the the work that I felt I wanted to do, which didn't mean it wasn't tricky these too much easier for me. It is simply not talk about it and do something else, because I have felt under considerable pressure to be very careful about what I would say to journalists and be very cautious about what we would right in the papers. When you say you feel the pressure. What do you mean by that? You felt it how and from whom it was self in
oh maybe more than anything, but I knew that my department chair and upper level administrators at the university were nervous about this work. They wanted me to be really careful whenever I would However, an interview with with a jerk. Whilst I would have someone from the media office if it was an impersonal interview by my side to listen to what was being said, my chair caution me on a regular basis to be careful, be careful and that I would always try to do that because I knew that it was after I had gotten over my naivete. I knew that it was a really charged issue and I and that I was threatening a vested interest in so I will out which I felt that I felt the stress from it. One tool the industry groups use to challenge academic work they find unflattering is a freedom of information ACT or a foyer request in the academic community. Michael Hendricks came to be cited as a prime example of how
Oh foyer can facilitate harassment. We were subject to two very large for your requests, and the attorneys for the industry wanted. Essentially every scrap of paper that that exist. Every email that went back and forth every draft of a manuscript computer codes for the analyses, everything and the attorneys for what Jeanne University to their credit fought. It is a way to protect academic freedom, and the case was all timidly heard at the West, Virginia Supreme Court and decided in? However, the university that it was a request from the industry that was design basically to to intimidate to freeze academic freedom and to require me essentially just to waste a lot of time chasing down documents that they really didn't need to see. And then there was the time Hendricks was called to testify before Congress. Vat is research,
under consideration, was a proposal concerning mining permits and water quality protection. The committee on Energy and mineral resources will come to order. You talk about that experience, Europe S. Yes, I was rather, would you rather not its I wasn't the most rewarding experience. Ultimately, but I was one of four witnesses who has asked to testify before our committee for each for Congress Committee, of course, controlled by the republican majority. The other three speakers word supportive of the coal industry. How can the presidency or the National Mining Association colonies We strongly supports HR sixteen forty four, so I the lone voice. Therein I felt like the quality of discussion was pretty infantile, so so I would have to say to you, Sir I've seen fifth grade such projects that were more sad taken. I came
not to be installed. Yet I'm sorry, sir, but I have had the time to shine and I'm sorry, but you that I didn't ask that question so it can be pretty stressful. Sometimes you should be embarrassed to be here with a steady like this. You did. You know we much what you are being set up to do. Now again, I just naive, I guess I thought there would be a dignified discussion and I would have a chance to present my views and others would present theirs and didn't realize that it would turn to this little lie. Insulting little exchange. You want us to set policy and damage jobs, take away job opportunities people based on nonsense science here and- and I'm not asking you questions.
Making a statement. I know that representative John Fleming of Louisiana basically kind had treated you as, if your defending year dissertation on how to conduct statistical analysis of public health records. You control for those. How do you control, for that is a common statistical analysis to control for other research, statistical analysis to control for the differs yeah. He clearly knows nothing about analysis, Himsel feed. He was just had some predetermine question or to that one of his throat for him, probably that he flung out at me, we ve, published, like thirty papers on the health problems related This form of mining and he chose one of them, one of our health surveys that was publish paper, maybe not one of our strongest efforts, but a published paper that documented the health problems in mining communities and chose to take a couple, a pot shots at that one pay there is, though that was gonna- make some good. In your statement about the weight of the
evidence as a whole, but he he knows about research. She doesn't even not seem to understand basics control. Is Paul. You measure Cove area tsunami. You know he knows nothing. I understand he, He objected to your reliance on self reported data said your sample. Size was too small with pretend for a moment that he's on the other line. How would you just explain how you're research actually stands on its own? Well, the sample size for that study was several hundred people hasn't two small. If it had been too small, we may be had not would not have been able to find the differences that we had seen the fact, as we did, find big differences in health status across a variety of dimensions and the samples as was certainly adequate enough to detect those self report, is one valid well recognised form for collecting health day. There is plenty of evidence that people are in fact able to report their own health status accurately uncertain.
Not the only one who does analyses or were more rights papers based on self reported health data. Let's say, however, I put you in the prosecution chair for a moment and ask you to pick apart the overall thrust of your own argument, you're having to do with the relationship between mountaintop removal, mining and and health of the community. Talk about what you feel are the potential flaws weakness is or unanswerable, let's say, questions in your thesis, so we been able to make that direct connection within a single study between the health conditions that people have and the environmental conditions that those same people are exposed to night said limitation. There's no question about it were trying to do some work now to overcome that. But if you look at the past as a whole, and you see thirty papers.
more than that now and they document that the health problems are present throughout these communities. They become stronger? Is the levels of mining go up? They become strong as mountaintop removal specifically occurs. They become stronger as people have closer to the sites. They are not due to other conventional confound like smoking, obesity, education, age Sharon's etc and independently. We ve been able to assess that the water quality is in fact impaired that the air quality is fact impaired in ways that are consistent with the health problems that were seen in these communities. Even though we don't have the smoking gun. You know that explains this relationship at this point, I'm with the weight of the evidence to try to make a statement that we really dont. Now we really can't be sure has come to the point and I view that its immoral and we have some,
environmental science called the precautionary principle that if you know there are health problems and communities- and you know that the environmental conditions are impaired, even if you don't, You stand all the council mechanisms. You have to take appropriate steps to reduce harm and that's what we should be doing. the congressmen who grilled Hendricks in Washington, Louisiana representative John Fleming recently left Congress we reached out for response to Hendricks is characterisation of him. Someone who quote clearly knows nothing about this type of research Fleming objected. He told us that, in addition to serving as a congressmen quote, I am also a board certified family physician who studied medical literature for many years. As a train physician, I can easily identify a well designed or poorly designed study. When I see one. Furthermore, Fleming argued that Hendricks was in League with what he called tree. Hugging environmentalists,
in short, he said Doktor Hendrix attempted to push a personal environmental agenda in the guise of a public health study that was plain to see as a physician. The conclusions about his quote study who were drawn by me. Not my staff, in any case Hendricks as testimony and is research, have not accomplished what for well. I wish I could say that had more impacts, mountaintop removal is still taking place. Hendrick says his research did gain some traction during be Obama, presidency,
the EPA tightened, permitting guidelines for mountain top removal? West Virginia politicians acknowledged the potential for public health problems and Hendrick says his message may have helped persuade some big name: investment banks to divest from mountain top mining, but under a Trump administration that is vowed to be pro coal momentum. Thirty shifting a late Obama, Europe Interior Department ruling, intended to protect waterways from coal debris, has already been repealed. Hendricks called this a very bad idea, in my view, still he's hoping that research like his will convince policy makers to take a more comprehensive view of environmental it, station generally try to pay attention, not just when it comes to mountaintop removal, but to any energy policy that we develop, pay attention to the full production cycle to wear it
from the how its produce to how its extracted, how it's used to how the waste are disposed of and not just the consumption portion. We dont do a very the job of that and we should do that regardless of the energy source that were using. But what do you do if your bread is buttered by? You know the industry, and maybe you see the potential downside of your activity, and maybe you do but people really did their heels in and find a way to justify or confirmed their position based on. You know how they put food on their families table or how they paid back their shareholders and so on. That's always going to be. The case was always going to be some industry or institution that, even if the evidence is not in their favour, they'll make a strong argument
often win, because they have a lot of leverage. So is there any anything you ve learned from your interactions on this issue that you could see would be a useful mechanism to kind of breaking that log jam to where we could perhaps align incentives more productively for the greater good, well you're, absolutely right that people's self interest trumps many other considerations and finding ways to make that work in our favour, rather than trying to struggle against. It is probably a smart approach, better incentives to promote Clean energy development, for example, would be would be one thing that I would think would be a good idea. But how do you do that when you have to face the same entrenched political interests that tend to oppose those kinds of changes, and we could talk about it in a rational way, but it still require. I hate to say this, but I
think it may require a crisis before we'll make real change, but whenever this any change there, always winners in there are losers. So in this case you know what, if the potential loser were somehow given a winning ticket, what? If what? If you could go to the coal industry that and lets say in and say we are going to subsidize you're clean energy development to the tune of x, which is were giving everyone plus ten, sent hard. It's gonna be really hard for you to lose money for the next five years with something like that work. I dont want to discuss like I'm, trying to claim your idea, but that was something I had actually been thinking about. A while back is that, rather than having the the West Virginia call us, creation, we should have the West Virginia Energy Association and there should be an it is for them to do a more sustainable, long term approach to The energy needs a West Virginia and of the country, so those sorts of incentives think, would be really smart to do, but I don't I
we will be able to do them, was you our idea for the west. Virginia Energy Association met with open arms by the West Virginia call. Well, it was. I discussed more with with colleagues in and for every euro, you need to get out of your sight, o thou guy, you're, right, you're, right you're right. I am sure they would have welcomed the idea with open arms Why are you no longer at West Virginia University? Oh, that's a pretty boring story to my wife is a is a professor. She was an empty She is an epidemiologist and she was it West, Virginia University too, and she got a great job offer Heerd Indiana. That was an important career advancement her, so we moved here to support her career Senor move from West. Junior, wasn't due to any kind of pressure or indirect or direct against your research. Now I am sure that serves innocent, quick question that comes to people's minds. I've been
about a number of times, but it's just not the case. It's just a personal decision. Well for those of us who appreciate academic research and free, whether from the individual level up to the Provost Chancellor level, that's very, very nice to hear that you felt that, like the university really had your back, even though you are producing research that could have made things uncomfortable for them did. They make things uncomfortable for them in some other ways, and I'm sure there were a few. The administrators who are happy to see me go, but but they did Are they did allow me to pursue my work, so I appreciate that coming up next time on Freakonomics Radio, another story about another industry, but unlike Cole, this one has been booming. Suddenly, there's a sex by just went from, let's say five percent
budget up into the fifties and Sixtys. It's great news. If you run a visual effects company in Hollywood right guess again, we had just received this academy award and our for company that at that time, was going through a bankruptcy. In a world where Hollywood movies or visually extravagant. Why the defence industry in Hollywood vanished and is everything through tax incentives, come on whose willing hope that next time, Unfrequent Amex radio freedom, radio is produced by w in my C studios and W productions. This episode was produced by Gregg Result Ski our staff also includes Shelly Louis Christopher Worth Stephanie Tam Merit Jacob Eliza, Lambert, Allison Hockenberry Emma Morgenstern Harry Huggins, in brain Gutierrez. You can subscribe to Freakonomics radio on Itunes, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcast. You should also check out
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Transcript generated on 2021-01-24.