The Fayette Tribune, Oak Hill, W.Va.

Local News

January 17, 2013

Group focuses on environmental health of coalfields

BEARDS FORK — A series of forums and training in Fayette County this year aims to address the impact of coal mining — especially surface mining — on human health, water quality and community.

“I think it’s important for every community member, no matter where they live, to be informed about the issues in their surroundings so that they can advocate for change if it’s needed,” said Kathryn South.

South is community outreach coordinator for the Coalfield Environmental Health Project. Organizers hope the project will “keep people informed of the status of ongoing surface mining and help them understand the existing environmental laws that give them some measure of protection from the adverse effects of surface mining.”

South has lived in a coal mining community for over 40 years. She says she has seen the impact of living around industrial activities like coal mining first-hand.

“There’s been the whole gamut of life-threatening illnesses and diseases that people in this area have been burdened with for years and years. If we can make a dent in that number of people who have cancer and heart disease and breathing problems, then I think we are accomplishing a great goal,” says South.

Her husband, Mike South, was an underground miner who was disabled with black lung disease when he was 35 years old. He would go on to lead the National Black Lung Association, fighting to ensure that disabled miners received benefits for their debilitating condition. He knew there was a need for this type of advocacy and so he stepped up to the plate.

Kathryn, likewise, sees a need in her community that needs to be filled. She views the Coalfield Environmental Health Project as just the latest in a “natural progression” of work she and others have done to respond to the issues facing their communities in southern West Virginia.

“This is another step in that process of communities helping communities and people helping people,” she said.

“It’s a way of keeping people involved with what’s going on so they can help protect themselves and their children and grandchildren from future health problems.”

The project has three components, according to coordinator Andrew Munn:

— Five community forums on surface mining at which experts will present and hold discussion of surface mining and its impact on economy, environment and health.

— Three sessions for people who are dealing with flooding, dust, blasting and other problems so they can effectively navigate state and federal laws to get the protection they need.

— Equipping a group of interested people with the knowledge and skills to be a resource to the rest of the area on surface mining issues.

Dr. Dan Doyle spent much of his career at the New River Black Lung Clinic in Scarbro, which he helped establish with local UMWA coal miners.

Doyle — a graduate of Harvard Medical School who lives in Fayette County — has been reading the growing number of studies on the negative health impacts felt by residents of coal mining communities.

A recent study by Dr. Michael Hendryx, for example, showed that deaths from cardiovascular disease are significantly higher in mining areas, particularly those near mountaintop removal sites. Hendryx, one of the speakers in the Coalfield Environmental Health Project series, has also studied rates of cancer, birth defects and microvascular dysfunction in coalfield residents.

“Hearing and learning about all this is making me start to be more aware than I have been of environmental factors contributing to serious chronic diseases that I assumed were just totally related to individual behavior,” said Doyle.

The recent research by Hendryx and others has also made Doyle think about his response to surface mining, “as a citizen physician.”

“We try to do our best, day in and day out in our care of individual patients. We also have a responsibility as citizen physicians to think about what are the things we can do in terms of our community’s health policy, to try to guarantee and improve the health of our communities,” he said.

He added that becoming informed is a first step residents can take toward living healthier lives.

“Some things (residents) can’t change, like where they live or whether they are on well water or city water. But there are some things they have control over. For example, when they choose to drink their tap water — which might be coming from the PSD or a cistern or a well — and when they don’t.”

Some of the training and forums in the series will focus on the rules related to surface mining, so that citizens can be in a position to observe whether violations are occurring in their community.

“It’s a kind of self-care,” said Doyle. “We encourage people to take more responsibility for their diabetes care or for getting regular exercise. Another example of taking more responsibility for your health care is to observe whether illegal activities are taking place in your community, recognizing them and reporting them.”

All Coalfield Environmental Health Project events are free and open to the public.

For more information about the project, which is sponsored by the Southern Appalachian Labor School and the Plateau Action Network, contact Project Coordinator Andrew Munn at 304-924-1506 or

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