Unsurprisingly, the mining industry was not very happy about a new finding from West Virginia University, which showed that mountaintop removal may cause birth defects in the surrounding inhabitants. In their attempts to shift the blame for the high rates of birth defects in the parts of Appalachia where mountaintop removal is most prevalent, they resorted to a tired stereotype: West Virginians all marry their cousins. So that’s why their children are born with birth defects.
In a memo, the firm Crowell & Moring, which represents the National Mining Association, accused the WVU researchers of using misleading data. But then they went a step further, writing,
“The study failed to account for consanquinity [sic], one of the most prominent sources of birth defects.”
The term they were looking for, and misspelled, was “consanguinity.” The offensive memo is now down from the law firm’s website, but a reporter managed to copy and save it before it was removed, and is available via the Atlantic and Mother Jones.
This memo shows the lengths that coal companies will go to evade accusations of wrongdoing, even when scientific evidence shows that, in the words of Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, “There is already strong scientific evidence that this extreme form of strip mining harms people’s health and the environment. Now we find out that unborn children may be victims too.”
Ken Ward, the quick-thinking reporter who managed to save the memo, also talked to one of the authors of the WVU study, Michael Hendryx. His opinion was in line with Hershkowitz: “This is another one of these attempts to say what the effects ‘really’ are as an excuse to deny the serious health problems in MTM areas that exist across many health outcome measures. The reasons are partly due to the poor socioeconomic conditions that mining creates (not that are correlated with mining, but that mining creates), and may be due to the environmental pollution caused by mining.”
It’s important to note that one of the issues at stake is not just the pollutants released during mountaintop coal removal, but the poverty that it creates. Lowered socioeconomic conditions can lead to smoking and drinking during pregnancy, diabetes, and inadequate prenatal care, all of which can lead to birth defects. But even when the researchers controlled for these socioeconomic factors, they still found an elevated number of birth defects, suggesting that there are also powerful environmental elements at play.
Any way you slice it, the mining companies are guilty: of poisoning people’s homes with pollutants, consigning nearby inhabitants to poverty, and now, of using ugly stereotypes to cloak their unethical behavior. Maybe, though, this PR slip-up shows that studies like this are starting to make them feel desperate.
Photo from ilovemountains.org via flickr.