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

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    Let's say that you wanted
    to conduct an experiment.
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    In this experiment,
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    you randomly assign people
    to live in blasting zones
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    or in control locations without explosives
    going off over their heads.
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    They live in the community for years,
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    just downwind and downstream
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    from sites where tons of explosives
    are used almost daily.
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    And millions of gallons
    of water contaminated.
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    With random assignment,
    you could carefully study
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    the long-term health effects
    of living in these blasting communities
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    without a bunch of annoying
    confounders and covariates.
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    Random assignment does wonders.
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    That would be a rigorous,
    powerful scientific inquiry
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    into the effects of these
    environmental exposures.
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    Of course, such a study
    could never be done.
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    Most scientists wouldn't have
    the stomach for it.
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    The institutional review board
    would never approve it;
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    it would never pass human subjects review,
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    because it would be unethical, immoral.
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    And yet in effect,
    it is happening right now.
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    In my mind, this prompts some questions.
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    What is the ethical obligation
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    of the scientists who believes
    populations are in danger?
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    How much evidence is enough
    to be confident of our conclusions?
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    Where is the line between
    scientific certainty and the need to act?
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    The unplanned experiment
    that is happening right now
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    is called mountaintop removal.
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    The abbreviation for it is MTR.
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    It is a form of surface coal mining
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    that takes place in Appalachia,
    here in the United States.
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    MTR occurs in four states: Virginia,
    West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
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    Over 1.2 million acres
    have been mined in this way.
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    This is an area about the size of Delaware
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    but it is spread over a footprint
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    as large as Vermont
    and New Hampshire combined.
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    The process involves clear-cutting
    ancient Appalachian forest,
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    home to some of the richest
    biodiversity on the planet.
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    The trees are typically burned
    or dumped into adjacent valleys.
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    Then, to reach the buried coal seams,
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    explosives are used to remove
    up to 800 feet of mountain elevation.
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    Over 1,500 tons of explosives
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    are used for coal mining
    in West Virginia alone.
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    Every day.
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    Rock and soil debris
    is dumped over the valley sides
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    where it permanently buries
    headwater streams.
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    So far, over 500 mountains
    have been destroyed.
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    About 2,000 miles of streams
    have been permanently buried.
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    Water emerging from the base
    of the valley fills is highly contaminated
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    and remains contaminated for decades.
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    The coal then has to be
    chemically treated,
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    crushed and washed before it can be
    transported to power plants and burned.
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    This cleaning takes place on-site.
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    The process produces more air pollution
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    and contaminates billions
    of gallons of water with metals,
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    sulfates, cleaning chemicals
    and other impurities.
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    All of this to produce three percent
    of US electricity demand --
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    only three percent
    of US electricity demand.
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    As you can appreciate, this prompts
    all sorts of other questions.
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    What are the health impacts
    of mountaintop-removal mining?
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    There are over a million people
    who live in counties where MTR takes place
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    and millions more downstream and downwind.
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    What has been the response
    of industry and government
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    when these issues are documented?
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    And again, what is the ethical
    obligation of science
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    when faced with this disturbing situation?
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    I began to research this issue in 2006.
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    I had just taken a job
    at West Virginia University.
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    Before then, I hadn't done
    any research related to coal.
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    But I started to hear stories
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    from people who lived
    in these mining communities.
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    They said that the water
    they drank was not clean,
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    that the air they breathed was polluted.
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    They would tell me
    about their own illnesses
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    or illnesses in their family.
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    They were worried about how common
    cancer was in their neighborhoods.
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    I met with many people
    in southern West Virginia
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    and eastern Kentucky
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    to listen to those stories
    and hear their concerns.
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    I searched the scientific literature
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    and was surprised to learn
    that nothing had been published
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    on the public health effects
    of coal mining in the United States.
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    Let me say that again --
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    nothing had been published
    on the public health effects
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    of coal mining in the US.
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    So I thought, "I can make
    a new contribution,
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    no matter what I find,
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    to either confirm these concerns
    or to alleviate them."
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    I had no personal
    or organizational agenda.
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    Many of my colleagues
    initially were skeptical
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    that there would be any link
    between public health and mining.
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    They predicted that the health problems
    could be explained by poverty
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    or by lifestyle issues,
    like smoking and obesity.
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    When I started, I thought
    maybe they would be right.
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    We started by analyzing existing databases
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    that allowed us to link
    population health to mining activity
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    and to control statistically for age, sex,
    race, smoking, obesity, poverty,
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    education, health insurance
    and others we could measure.
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    We found evidence that confirmed
    the concerns of the residents,
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    and we started to publish our findings.
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    As a very brief summary,
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    we found that people who live
    where mountaintop removal takes place
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    have significantly higher levels
    of cardiovascular disease,
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    kidney disease and chronic
    lung disease like COPD.
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    Death rates from cancer
    are significantly elevated,
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    especially for lung cancer.
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    We've seen evidence
    for higher rates of birth defects
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    and for babies born at low birth weight.
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    The difference in total mortality
    equates to about 1,200 excess deaths
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    every year in MTR areas,
    controlling for other risks.
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    Twelve hundred excess deaths every year.
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    Not only are death rates higher,
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    but they increase
    as the levels of mining go up
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    in a dose-response manner.
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    Next, we started to conduct
    community door-to-door health surveys.
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    We surveyed people
    living within a few miles of MTR
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    versus similar rural
    communities without mining.
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    Survey results show higher levels
    of personal and family illness,
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    self-reported health status is poorer,
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    and illness symptoms across
    a broad spectrum are more common.
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    These studies are only associational.
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    We all know that correlation
    does not prove causation.
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    These studies did not include data
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    on the actual environmental conditions
    in mining communities.
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    So we started to collect
    and report on that.
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    We found that violations
    of public drinking-water standards
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    are seven times more common
    in MTR areas versus non-mining areas.
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    We collected air samples
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    and found that particulate matter
    is elevated in mining communities,
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    especially in the ultra-fine range.
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    The dust in mining communities
    contains a complex mixture,
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    but includes high levels of silica,
    a known lung carcinogen,
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    and potentially harmful organic compounds.
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    We used the dust in laboratory experiments
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    and found that it induced
    cardiovascular dysfunction in rats.
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    The dust also promoted the development
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    of lung cancer in human
    in vitro lung cells.
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    This is just a quick summary
    of some of our studies.
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    The coal industry does not like
    what we have to say.
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    Neither does the government
    in coal country.
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    Just like the tobacco industry
    paid for research
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    to defend the safety of smoking,
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    so the coal industry
    has tried to do the same
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    by paying people to write papers
    claiming that MTR is safe.
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    Lawyers have sent me harassing demands
    under the Freedom of Information Act,
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    eventually denied by the courts.
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    I'd been attacked at public testimony
    at a Congressional hearing
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    by a congressman
    with ties to the energy industry.
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    One governor has publicly declared
    that he refuses to read the research.
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    And after a meeting
    with a member of Congress,
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    in which I specifically
    shared my research,
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    I later heard that representative say
    they knew nothing about it.
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    I worked with scientists
    at the US Geological Survey
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    on environmental sampling
    for more than two years.
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    And just as they were starting
    to publish their findings,
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    they were suddenly instructed
    by their superiors
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    to stop work on this project.
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    In August of this year,
    the National Academy of Sciences
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    was suddenly instructed
    by the federal government
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    to stop their independent review
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    of the public health consequences
    of surface mining.
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    These actions are politically
    motivated, in my view.
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    But there is opposition
    from researchers, too.
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    At conferences or meetings,
    they express skepticism.
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    OK, we are all taught,
    as scientists, to be skeptical.
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    They ask, "What about
    this possible explanation?"
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    "Have you considered
    that alternative interpretation?"
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    They wonder, "There must be
    some confounder that we missed.
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    Some other variable
    we haven't accounted for."
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    "An in vitro study, what does that prove?"
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    "A rat study -- how do we know the same
    effects would be found in people?"
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    Maybe so.
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    Technically, you have to acknowledge
    that they could be right,
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    but you know, maybe these health problems
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    are not the result
    of some unmeasured confound.
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    Maybe they result
    from blowing up mountains
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    over people's heads.
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    (Laughter)
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    (Applause)
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    There can always be doubt,
    if doubt is what you seek.
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    Because we can never do that
    defining experiment.
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    Any next study
    must always be associational.
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    So perhaps you can understand
    why I've started to wonder,
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    how much evidence is enough?
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    I've published over 30 papers
    on this topic so far.
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    Along with my coauthors, other researchers
    have added to the evidence,
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    yet government doesn't want to listen,
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    and the industry says
    it's only correlational.
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    They say Appalachians
    have lifestyle issues.
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    As though it had never occurred to us
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    to control for smoking or obesity
    or poverty or education
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    or health insurance.
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    We controlled for all of those and more.
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    There comes a point
    where we don't need more research,
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    where we can't ask people
    to be unwilling research subjects
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    so we can do the next study.
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    As scientists, we follow
    the data wherever it goes,
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    but sometimes data can only take us so far
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    and we have to decide,
    as thinking, feeling human beings,
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    what it means and when it is time to act.
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    I think that is true, not only for MTR
    but for other situations
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    where evidence is strong
    and concerning but imperfect.
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    And when failing to act if you're wrong
    means people's lives.
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    It may seem strange
    that there is any controversy
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    over the health effects
    of mountaintop-removal mining.
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    But somehow, this subject has wound up
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    in a scientific
    and political twilight zone
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    alongside the debate over climate change
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    or the argument years ago
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    about whether or not
    smoking caused cancer.
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    In this twilight zone, much of the data
    seems to point to one conclusion.
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    But the economics or the politics
    or the prevailing public view
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    insist on the opposite conclusion.
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    When you're a scientist
    and you think you have a valid insight
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    where the health
    of entire populations is at stake
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    but you find yourself trapped
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    in this twilight zone
    of denial and disbelief,
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    what is your moral and ethical obligation?
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    Obviously, scientists are responsible
    for telling the truth as they see it,
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    based on evidence.
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    Simply stated, we have an obligation
    to stand up for the data.
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    It can be extremely frustrating
    to wait around for public opinion
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    or political consensus to catch up
    to the scientific understanding.
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    But the more controversial the subject
    and the more frustrating the debate,
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    the more critical it is for scientists
    to preserve our objectivity
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    and our reputation for integrity.
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    Because integrity is the coin of the realm
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    in scientific and public policy debate.
  • 12:34 - 12:35
    In the long run,
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    our reputation for integrity
    is the most powerful tool that we have,
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    even more powerful than the data itself.
  • 12:43 - 12:45
    Without an acknowledged integrity
    on the part of scientists,
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    no amount of data
    will ever convince people
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    to believe painful or difficult truths.
  • 12:51 - 12:56
    But when we cultivate and guard
    our reputation for integrity,
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    when we patiently stand up for the data
    and keep doing the studies
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    and keep calmly bringing
    the results to the public,
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    that's when we have our greatest impact.
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    Eventually, scientific truth
    does and will win out.
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    How many lives will be lost while we wait?
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    Too many already.
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    But prevail we will.
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    Thank you.
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    (Applause)
タイトル:
The shocking danger of mountaintop removal -- and why it must end
話者:
Michael Hendryx
概説:

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Video Language:
English
Team:
TED
プロジェクト:
TEDTalks
Duration:
13:44

English subtitles

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