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← The shocking danger of mountaintop removal -- and why it must end

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Showing Revision 5 created 05/17/2018 by Brian Greene.

  1. Let's say that you wanted
    to conduct an experiment.
  2. In this experiment,
  3. you randomly assign people
    to live in blasting zones
  4. or in control locations without explosives
    going off over their heads.
  5. They live in the community for years,
  6. just downwind and downstream
  7. from sites where tons of explosives
    are used almost daily.
  8. And millions of gallons
    of water contaminated.
  9. With random assignment,
    you could carefully study
  10. the long-term health effects
    of living in these blasting communities
  11. without a bunch of annoying
    confounders and covariates.
  12. Random assignment does wonders.
  13. That would be a rigorous,
    powerful scientific inquiry

  14. into the effects of these
    environmental exposures.
  15. Of course, such a study
    could never be done.
  16. Most scientists wouldn't have
    the stomach for it.
  17. The institutional review board
    would never approve it;
  18. it would never pass human subjects review,
  19. because it would be unethical, immoral.
  20. And yet in effect,
    it is happening right now.
  21. In my mind, this prompts some questions.
  22. What is the ethical obligation
  23. of the scientists who believes
    populations are in danger?
  24. How much evidence is enough
    to be confident of our conclusions?
  25. Where is the line between
    scientific certainty and the need to act?
  26. The unplanned experiment
    that is happening right now

  27. is called mountaintop removal.
  28. The abbreviation for it is MTR.
  29. It is a form of surface coal mining
  30. that takes place in Appalachia,
    here in the United States.
  31. MTR occurs in four states: Virginia,
    West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
  32. Over 1.2 million acres
    have been mined in this way.
  33. This is an area about the size of Delaware
  34. but it is spread over a footprint
  35. as large as Vermont
    and New Hampshire combined.
  36. The process involves clear-cutting
    ancient Appalachian forest,
  37. home to some of the richest
    biodiversity on the planet.
  38. The trees are typically burned
    or dumped into adjacent valleys.
  39. Then, to reach the buried coal seams,
  40. explosives are used to remove
    up to 800 feet of mountain elevation.
  41. Over 1,500 tons of explosives
  42. are used for coal mining
    in West Virginia alone.
  43. Every day.
  44. Rock and soil debris
    is dumped over the valley sides

  45. where it permanently buries
    headwater streams.
  46. So far, over 500 mountains
    have been destroyed.
  47. About 2,000 miles of streams
    have been permanently buried.
  48. Water emerging from the base
    of the valley fills is highly contaminated
  49. and remains contaminated for decades.
  50. The coal then has to be
    chemically treated,
  51. crushed and washed before it can be
    transported to power plants and burned.
  52. This cleaning takes place on-site.
  53. The process produces more air pollution
  54. and contaminates billions
    of gallons of water with metals,
  55. sulfates, cleaning chemicals
    and other impurities.
  56. All of this to produce three percent
    of US electricity demand --
  57. only three percent
    of US electricity demand.
  58. As you can appreciate, this prompts
    all sorts of other questions.

  59. What are the health impacts
    of mountaintop-removal mining?
  60. There are over a million people
    who live in counties where MTR takes place
  61. and millions more downstream and downwind.
  62. What has been the response
    of industry and government
  63. when these issues are documented?
  64. And again, what is the ethical
    obligation of science
  65. when faced with this disturbing situation?
  66. I began to research this issue in 2006.

  67. I had just taken a job
    at West Virginia University.
  68. Before then, I hadn't done
    any research related to coal.
  69. But I started to hear stories
  70. from people who lived
    in these mining communities.
  71. They said that the water
    they drank was not clean,
  72. that the air they breathed was polluted.
  73. They would tell me
    about their own illnesses
  74. or illnesses in their family.
  75. They were worried about how common
    cancer was in their neighborhoods.
  76. I met with many people
    in southern West Virginia
  77. and eastern Kentucky
  78. to listen to those stories
    and hear their concerns.
  79. I searched the scientific literature
  80. and was surprised to learn
    that nothing had been published
  81. on the public health effects
    of coal mining in the United States.
  82. Let me say that again --
  83. nothing had been published
    on the public health effects
  84. of coal mining in the US.
  85. So I thought, "I can make
    a new contribution,

  86. no matter what I find,
  87. to either confirm these concerns
    or to alleviate them."
  88. I had no personal
    or organizational agenda.
  89. Many of my colleagues
    initially were skeptical
  90. that there would be any link
    between public health and mining.
  91. They predicted that the health problems
    could be explained by poverty
  92. or by lifestyle issues,
    like smoking and obesity.
  93. When I started, I thought
    maybe they would be right.
  94. We started by analyzing existing databases
  95. that allowed us to link
    population health to mining activity
  96. and to control statistically for age, sex,
    race, smoking, obesity, poverty,
  97. education, health insurance
    and others we could measure.
  98. We found evidence that confirmed
    the concerns of the residents,
  99. and we started to publish our findings.
  100. As a very brief summary,

  101. we found that people who live
    where mountaintop removal takes place
  102. have significantly higher levels
    of cardiovascular disease,
  103. kidney disease and chronic
    lung disease like COPD.
  104. Death rates from cancer
    are significantly elevated,
  105. especially for lung cancer.
  106. We've seen evidence
    for higher rates of birth defects
  107. and for babies born at low birth weight.
  108. The difference in total mortality
    equates to about 1,200 excess deaths
  109. every year in MTR areas,
    controlling for other risks.
  110. Twelve hundred excess deaths every year.
  111. Not only are death rates higher,
  112. but they increase
    as the levels of mining go up
  113. in a dose-response manner.
  114. Next, we started to conduct
    community door-to-door health surveys.
  115. We surveyed people
    living within a few miles of MTR
  116. versus similar rural
    communities without mining.
  117. Survey results show higher levels
    of personal and family illness,
  118. self-reported health status is poorer,
  119. and illness symptoms across
    a broad spectrum are more common.
  120. These studies are only associational.

  121. We all know that correlation
    does not prove causation.
  122. These studies did not include data
  123. on the actual environmental conditions
    in mining communities.
  124. So we started to collect
    and report on that.
  125. We found that violations
    of public drinking-water standards
  126. are seven times more common
    in MTR areas versus non-mining areas.
  127. We collected air samples
  128. and found that particulate matter
    is elevated in mining communities,
  129. especially in the ultra-fine range.
  130. The dust in mining communities
    contains a complex mixture,
  131. but includes high levels of silica,
    a known lung carcinogen,
  132. and potentially harmful organic compounds.
  133. We used the dust in laboratory experiments
  134. and found that it induced
    cardiovascular dysfunction in rats.
  135. The dust also promoted the development
  136. of lung cancer in human
    in vitro lung cells.
  137. This is just a quick summary
    of some of our studies.
  138. The coal industry does not like
    what we have to say.

  139. Neither does the government
    in coal country.
  140. Just like the tobacco industry
    paid for research
  141. to defend the safety of smoking,
  142. so the coal industry
    has tried to do the same
  143. by paying people to write papers
    claiming that MTR is safe.
  144. Lawyers have sent me harassing demands
    under the Freedom of Information Act,
  145. eventually denied by the courts.
  146. I'd been attacked at public testimony
    at a Congressional hearing
  147. by a congressman
    with ties to the energy industry.
  148. One governor has publicly declared
    that he refuses to read the research.
  149. And after a meeting
    with a member of Congress,
  150. in which I specifically
    shared my research,
  151. I later heard that representative say
    they knew nothing about it.
  152. I worked with scientists
    at the US Geological Survey

  153. on environmental sampling
    for more than two years.
  154. And just as they were starting
    to publish their findings,
  155. they were suddenly instructed
    by their superiors
  156. to stop work on this project.
  157. In August of this year,
    the National Academy of Sciences
  158. was suddenly instructed
    by the federal government
  159. to stop their independent review
  160. of the public health consequences
    of surface mining.
  161. These actions are politically
    motivated, in my view.
  162. But there is opposition
    from researchers, too.

  163. At conferences or meetings,
    they express skepticism.
  164. OK, we are all taught,
    as scientists, to be skeptical.
  165. They ask, "What about
    this possible explanation?"
  166. "Have you considered
    that alternative interpretation?"
  167. They wonder, "There must be
    some confounder that we missed.
  168. Some other variable
    we haven't accounted for."
  169. "An in vitro study, what does that prove?"
  170. "A rat study -- how do we know the same
    effects would be found in people?"
  171. Maybe so.
  172. Technically, you have to acknowledge
    that they could be right,
  173. but you know, maybe these health problems
  174. are not the result
    of some unmeasured confound.
  175. Maybe they result
    from blowing up mountains
  176. over people's heads.
  177. (Laughter)

  178. (Applause)

  179. There can always be doubt,
    if doubt is what you seek.

  180. Because we can never do that
    defining experiment.
  181. Any next study
    must always be associational.
  182. So perhaps you can understand
    why I've started to wonder,
  183. how much evidence is enough?
  184. I've published over 30 papers
    on this topic so far.
  185. Along with my coauthors, other researchers
    have added to the evidence,
  186. yet government doesn't want to listen,
  187. and the industry says
    it's only correlational.
  188. They say Appalachians
    have lifestyle issues.
  189. As though it had never occurred to us
  190. to control for smoking or obesity
    or poverty or education
  191. or health insurance.
  192. We controlled for all of those and more.
  193. There comes a point
    where we don't need more research,

  194. where we can't ask people
    to be unwilling research subjects
  195. so we can do the next study.
  196. As scientists, we follow
    the data wherever it goes,
  197. but sometimes data can only take us so far
  198. and we have to decide,
    as thinking, feeling human beings,
  199. what it means and when it is time to act.
  200. I think that is true, not only for MTR
    but for other situations
  201. where evidence is strong
    and concerning but imperfect.
  202. And when failing to act if you're wrong
    means people's lives.
  203. It may seem strange
    that there is any controversy

  204. over the health effects
    of mountaintop-removal mining.
  205. But somehow, this subject has wound up
  206. in a scientific
    and political twilight zone
  207. alongside the debate over climate change
  208. or the argument years ago
  209. about whether or not
    smoking caused cancer.
  210. In this twilight zone, much of the data
    seems to point to one conclusion.
  211. But the economics or the politics
    or the prevailing public view
  212. insist on the opposite conclusion.
  213. When you're a scientist
    and you think you have a valid insight
  214. where the health
    of entire populations is at stake
  215. but you find yourself trapped
  216. in this twilight zone
    of denial and disbelief,
  217. what is your moral and ethical obligation?
  218. Obviously, scientists are responsible
    for telling the truth as they see it,

  219. based on evidence.
  220. Simply stated, we have an obligation
    to stand up for the data.
  221. It can be extremely frustrating
    to wait around for public opinion
  222. or political consensus to catch up
    to the scientific understanding.
  223. But the more controversial the subject
    and the more frustrating the debate,
  224. the more critical it is for scientists
    to preserve our objectivity
  225. and our reputation for integrity.
  226. Because integrity is the coin of the realm
  227. in scientific and public policy debate.
  228. In the long run,

  229. our reputation for integrity
    is the most powerful tool that we have,
  230. even more powerful than the data itself.
  231. Without an acknowledged integrity
    on the part of scientists,
  232. no amount of data
    will ever convince people
  233. to believe painful or difficult truths.
  234. But when we cultivate and guard
    our reputation for integrity,
  235. when we patiently stand up for the data
    and keep doing the studies
  236. and keep calmly bringing
    the results to the public,
  237. that's when we have our greatest impact.
  238. Eventually, scientific truth
    does and will win out.

  239. How many lives will be lost while we wait?
  240. Too many already.
  241. But prevail we will.
  242. Thank you.

  243. (Applause)