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Appalachia's Own 'Resource Curse'?

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Pollution and poverty caused by the development of oil reserves have deprived tens of million of Nigerians their basic human rights, according to Amnesty International, which calls oil a "resource curse" for the region.

"People living in the Niger Delta have to drink, cook with, and wash in polluted water; they eat fish contaminated with oil and other toxins -- if they are lucky enough to still be able to find fish," Amnesty says in its new report.

Replace "oil development in Nigeria" with "mountaintop removal in Appalachia" and it's easy to see the eerie similarities.

Consider that coal mining costs Appalachians five times more in early deaths as the industry provides to the region in jobs, taxes and other economic benefits.  This is according to a new study which finds that coal is more a curse than blessing for the region.

"Coal-mining economies are not strong economies," said West Virginia University researcher Michael Hendryx, who co-authored the study.  He added that coalfield communities "are weaker than the rest of the state, weaker than the rest of the region, and weaker than the rest of the nation."

According to the study, the coal industry generates a little more than $8 billion a year in economic benefits for the Appalachian region.  However, the conservative estimate of coal's costs -- in terms of the value of premature deaths attributable to the mining industry across the Appalachian coalfields -- comes to $42 billion. 

(In estimating economic benefits, the study notes that the number of coal miners in Appalachia declined from 122,102 to 53,509 between 1985 and 2005, largely due to a corresponding increase in mechanized mining practices like mountaintop removal, which requires fewer employees than underground mining per ton mined.)

Bottom line:  The human cost of the Appalachian coal mining economy outweighs its economic benefits, according to the study.  

Read the full study online at: www.publichealthreports.org.  It concludes that:

"The reliance on coal mining in some areas of Appalachia constitutes a de facto economic policy: coal is mined because it is present and because there is a market for it.  However, other economic policies could be developed if reliance on this resource was not in the best interest of the local population."

The study identifies these potential alternative employment opportunities:  development of renewable energy from wind, solar, biofuels, geothermal, or hydropower sources; sustainable timber; small-scale agriculture; outdoor or culturally oriented tourism; technology; and ecosystem restoration. 

Hendryx's research builds on his previous work that found excess premature deaths in coal counties compared to other counties in Appalachia.  Those other studies, which were also published in peer-reviewed journals, found that residents of coal-producing counties are more likely to suffer from chronic heart, lung and kidney diseases, more likely to be hospitalized for certain health problems that are connected to coal pollution, and more likely to contract lung cancer and generally suffer from excess numbers of premature deaths.  The new study, it should be noted, only makes a  casual link, acknowledging that "[d]espite the significant associations between coal-mining activity and both socio-economic disadvantage and premature mortality, it cannot be stated with certainty that coal-mining causes these problems."  Future research by Hendryx will look into other possible explanations, including exposure to coal byproducts such as slurry leaching into water supplies or air pollution effects from mining and coal processing. 

In addition to the health and quality of life impacts of mining-related pollution in Appalachia, another new study -- this one in Kentucky -- finds that the state spends more public money to support and subsidize the coal industry than it receives in state revenues from the industry.  For 2006, spending exceeded revenues by an estimated $115 million.

This study, by the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED), concluded that the coal industry takes more than it gives economically.  The underlying reason is that while industry generates state revenue from the coal taxes and creates employment, the costs associated with the industry are also substantial.  For instance, Kentucky spends public money to:

  • address the industry's impacts on the road system
  • regulate the environmental and health and safety impacts
  • provide various tax breaks and subsidies
  • support coal worker training
  • conduct research and development for the industry
  • provide education about coal in the public schools
  • support the residents directly and indirectly employed by coal.
According to MACED:

"The industry's costs to the state are particularly concerning given its current economic role.  While coal was once a major employer in Kentucky, jobs have declined substantially over time and the industry now makes up only 1 percent of state-wide employment.  In those counties with the highest share of employment in coal, mining jobs range from 3 to 23 percent of local employment.  But those counties struggle with significant long-term unemployment and poverty rates as high as 37 percent."

The study also paints a bleak outlook for the future of Kentucky coal.  Not only has the state's coal fared poorly compared to western U. S. coal due to higher production costs, but official sources also project continued decline in production as the easily recoverable coal is depleted.  Kentucky coal also will face new challenges in the coming years as aging coal-fired power plants meet retirement and new laws on carbon emissions raise the price of coal relative to cleaner alternatives. Those realities will also lessen Kentucky's historic advantage of low-price electricity.

"Kentucky and the nation face major challenges and important choices in the coming years regarding coal and energy policy," says MACED President Justin Maxson.  "We must think carefully about how we will engage with the transition in front of us and make informed choices with a stronger accounting of the costs and benefits of our options." 

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.

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