Coal-backed studies evoke controversy
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A two-year-old, $15 million coal industry project to fund research on mining's health, environmental and economic impacts is beginning to produce results. New papers have been published, conference presentations are being delivered, and a weeklong symposium is scheduled for later this month.
So far, the published studies have not disproved previous work that linked mountaintop removal to water pollution, deforestation and the risk of serious illnesses.
Company-backed reports are pointing out some potential flaws in earlier research. They also are generating questions of their own, in part because industry's role in funding the work has not been clearly disclosed.
Virginia Tech officials, who are coordinating the multi-university Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science, or ARIES, have offered conflicting statements about the purpose of the project.
On its website, ARIES says the project's purpose is "to engage in detailed studies of the environmental impacts of the mining, gas and energy sectors in Appalachia, focusing on both upstream (mining, drilling, and processing) and downstream (water, land and air) issues.
Michael Karmis, director of Virginia Tech's Center for Coal and Energy, where ARIES is headquartered, describes the project as an effort to generate good science by the best minds at universities around the region.
"We want to have a scientific debate, not a political debate," Karmis said during an August 2012 interview.
A year before that interview, when ARIES was just getting started, Karmis described the program a bit differently during an appearance at a Society of Mining Professors meeting.
According to a slide presentation from that event, Karmis introduced ARIES by first citing a variety of statistics about coal's contribution to the world's energy supply. For example, one slide, titled "What coal did today," said that coal provided more than 40 percent of the power for 300 billion emails, "enhanced energy security for dozens of nations across the globe," and "enabled the production of 2.4 million metric tons of steel.
"Yet, the coal industry, at least in the USA, is under a major attack" by the government, the media and nongovernmental organizations, Karmis continued. He cited "unreasonable regulations based on "questionable science," "false assertions" and "self-serving interests"
Using some slides borrowed from industry groups, Karmis criticized a "train wreck" of new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air-pollution regulations and called EPA water-quality guidance for strip mining an "arbitrary" standard that would not be "enforced in an equitable manner.
"The coal industry needs help," Karmis said in the September 2011 presentation.
Later, in a February 2013 interview, Karmis said he is concerned about the EPA's crackdown on mountaintop-removal mining and about the agency's rules for coal-fired power plants.
"I'm questioning the prudence of some of those regulations out there and the timing of those regulations, and I'm encouraging more research," Karmis said. "We will question science and we will question regulations if we feel they are not properly documented."
'Break through years of distrust'
John Craynon grew up in McCreary County, in Eastern Kentucky's coalfields. He knows about the close-knit communities there, and about coal's longtime importance to local economics, but also about some of the environmental damage and the boom-bust cycle of the mining business.
Craynon spent nearly 30 years in Washington, working for the U.S. Department of the Interior, most of it with the federal Office of Surface Mining. Two years ago, Craynon landed at Virginia Tech, where he's working with Karmis to direct the ARIES project, as well as doing his own research and writing about mining issues.
While working for the federal government, Craynon said, he always felt like agencies never had adequate science to properly deal with questions that citizens groups were increasingly asking about large-scale surface-coal mining. Now, he's trying to fill that gap.
"The resolution of complex issues such as mountaintop mining may require radical boldness to break through years of distrust and allow for the adoption of a more public ecology," Craynon wrote in an article published last year in the journal Resources Policy. "Through the cooperation of all parties, mountaintop coal mining may be modified so that better social, environmental and economic goals can be achieved and the interests of all affected parties can be adequately considered."
At Virginia Tech, Karmis was already growing concerned about the lack of government funding for research on mining issues. Four years earlier, Karmis had served on a National Research Council panel that produced a report detailing the need for tens of millions of dollars annually in new money for coal-related research.
Meanwhile, Karmis was hearing growing complaints from coal industry executives who serve on his Virginia Tech research center's advisory board.
Companies, such as Alpha Natural Resources, were upset about efforts by the Obama administration's EPA to try to curb mountaintop removal's impacts on water quality. Mine operators said their own studies contradicted peer-reviewed research the EPA cited as evidence of mining damage. However, agency officials were hesitant to rely on industry work produced by company consultants for use in litigation.
"From my time in government, I know how we viewed that, with a little bit of suspicion," Craynon recalled. "Really, you would look at some of these studies, and say, 'This is really compelling,' but it's hard for us as an agency to base a decision on something that doesn't have third-party acceptance."
And thus, the ARIES project was born.
Virginia Tech announced it on March 31, 2011, calling ARIES "a new initiative to address the environmental impacts of the discovery, development, production and use of energy resources in Appalachia."
The initial funding companies -- Virginia Tech calls them "industrial partners" -- included Alpha Natural Resources, International Coal Group, Massey Energy Co., TECO Coal, Patriot Coal and Norfolk Southern. Virginia Tech's news release quoted Kevin Crutchfield, CEO of Alpha.
"We believe that good scientific research on natural resources, safety, and environmental issues is a key way to sustain the viability of the industry," Crutchfield said. "Only by knowing what the facts are about the impacts of mining can elected officials then make sound policy decisions that support jobs and energy security while maintaining the health and well-being of the environment and communities of Appalachia."
Industry officials who funded ARIES were given the ability to help choose the broad research topics for the project, but are not supposed to be directly involved in the actual studies, according to Karmis and Craynon.
"This is not consulting work and this is not advocacy," Craynon said. "We're just doing research."
'Mitigating environmental impacts'
So far, three ARIES-funded papers have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
One paper, by West Virginia University foresters, looked for ways to adequately measure damage to forests from mountaintop-removal mining. It found that mountaintop removal was targeting some of the most ecologically important forest areas in the region, and proposed that regulators and industry consider doing something about that.
Another study, by WVU's Paul Ziemkiewicz, focused on toxic selenium runoff, and concluded that mine operators might be able to find ways to keep the material from leaching into waterways, where it becomes much more difficult and expensive to treat.
A third ARIES-funded paper, by researchers at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine in Virginia, examined recent studies that linked living near mountaintop-removal mining to increased risks of serious illnesses and premature death. That paper criticized existing work on the subject, complaining that it was produced mostly by WVU's Michael Hendryx or researchers working with Hendryx, and said that more studies by others were needed to confirm or disprove the findings.
A fourth ARIES-funded paper was published but did not go through the peer-review process. It was published, as is common in academia, after being delivered at a conference, in a journal issue that compiled such presentations.
The paper, by Ohio State University researchers, re-examined the long-standing theory of the "resource curse." That theory holds that dependence on resource extraction, such as coal mining, actually contributes to deep poverty by fostering low educational attainment, little entrepreneurship, environmental degradation and limits on other economic development.
Ohio State economist Mark Partridge and his co-authors, though, found that the data didn't support such conclusions -- at least not for modern-day Appalachia. When they compared poverty data with mining statistics, they found that the "resource curse" related to coal mining ended some time after 2000.
In an interview earlier this year, however, Partridge revealed that follow-up research found that their initial conclusion was wrong.
"Basically, the preliminary evidence that mountaintop mining was associated with lower poverty rates, at least in the short-term, post-2000, goes away," Partridge said in the January interview. "I would never argue that mountaintop removal is a sustainable, long-term economic development strategy."
'ARIES isn't legitimate'
Just last month, another ARIES-sponsored study was made public. A news release from the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health reported that the study found West Virginia counties with coal mining activity have higher mortality rates than non-coal mining Appalachian counties.
The study confirmed some of the findings from the work done by WVU's Hendryx, but the Pitt authors said their findings did not point as squarely at mining as the potential cause for increased coalfield mortality rates -- at least not yet.
"More studies will be needed to understand the complex interactions of environmental factors, personal behaviors and other risks to determine the extent coal mining plays in elevating mortality rates," said lead author Jeanine Buchanich, deputy director of epidemiology at the Pitt Public Health Center for Occupational Biostatics and Epidemiology.
Hendryx, though, noted that his research already was controlled for a variety of other possible factors, including smoking, poverty and educational level, and still found increased mortality and illness rates in Appalachian mining communities.
Hendryx said industry-funded studies often appear aimed at creating just enough uncertainly about the links between pollution and health problems to block government action.
"What I've seen so far is that ARIES isn't legitimate and doesn't deserve to be treated seriously," Hendryx said. "It's clear that the industry is paying these researchers to do work that is supportive of the industry and the industry is going to pick and choose what they promote from it."
Buchanich said it would be shortsighted for researchers to allow industry funding to taint their work.
"While the money obviously goes to the University of Pittsburgh -- every study supports a small part of my salary -- the only thing I have as an academic researcher is my reputation for doing good science," she said. "If I lose that, I'm out of a job."
Industry-funded research such as ARIES is not unusual, and neither are questions about whether the funding impacts the results or not. David Michaels, a former George Washington University scientist who now heads the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, wrote a book about industry-funded research. He called it, "Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health."
Michaels cited a variety of examples -- global warming, second-hand smoke, asbestos, lead -- where industry-backed research for years created just enough uncertainty to block any meaningful government action.
"We see this growing trend that disingenuously demands proof over precaution in the realm of public health," Michaels wrote in his 2008 book. "In field after field, year after year, conclusions that might support regulation are disputed." Michaels says industry-backed scientists "have shaped and skewed the scientific literature, manufactured and magnified scientific uncertainty, and influenced policy decisions to the advantage of polluters and the manufacturers of dangerous products."
A 'clear, definitive statement' is needed
So far, the only ARIES-funded paper that actually mentioned ARIES was the Ohio State economics paper -- but that disclosure didn't say what ARIES is. The Pitt study's news release also mentioned ARIES, but again didn't explain the industry's funding role.
Dan Fagin, a longtime science journalist and educator who directs the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University, said a more detailed disclosure would help the public understand a project like ARIES.
"There should be a clear, definitive statement explaining that this research was funded by the coal industry, period," Fagin said.
Celeste Monforton, a George Washington University public-health researcher who has followed industry involvement in various issues, agrees.
"The reason we have disclosure statements now in journals is so that the public is informed about who funds the studies and the public can make their own decisions about whether the source of the funding has somehow affected what was being reported in the study," Monforton said.
In response to questions from the Sunday Gazette-Mail, ARIES staffers came up with a standard statement they say they will ask all project researchers to include in future papers. The statement says ARIES "is an industrial affiliates program at Virginia Tech, supported by members that include companies in the energy sector." It points readers to the ARIES website for more information.
Later this month, ARIES will host a five-day meeting in Charleston, where researchers funded by the project will present some of their results. Nearly 70 papers are on the agenda, and ARIES plans to publish a compilation of the results, in cooperation with the Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration.
Craynon said ARIES set up a process for peer-review of the presentations but that the process is voluntary, and about two dozen of the authors declined to have their work reviewed by other scientists before it was published.
Craynon said some of the ARIES research expected to be released at the conference will highlight questions about previous scientific papers that led to the EPA's focus on electrical conductivity as a measure of mining's impact on water quality in Appalachia.
"Some of the results may not be universal and may not be universally applicable," Craynon said. "I think we're finding a little bit of a mixed bag. There's still room for more research. There's a lot of good work out there."
The agenda for the April 14-18 symposium also includes plenary sessions where "invited government and corporate leaders will share their perspectives on the importance of energy and the environment to their states and the nation." The program says, "The discussions will bring a perspective on the need for good science to inform policies and decisions."
Plenary session speakers include Randy Huffman, secretary of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection; Gene Kitts, a senior vice president of Alpha Natural Resources; and Bruce Baine, a vice president of the Edison Electric Institute, a utility industry group.
In previous interviews, Karmis and Craynon said they also hoped to have leaders of local citizens or environmental groups take part in the event, to offer their perspective about mining's impact on their communities. The program included no such speakers and, in an email message last week, Craynon confirmed, "No citizens groups are presenting.
"We determined it was better to meet with the citizens separately," Craynon said, "so that their concerns don't get shortchanged."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.