When writing news stories, one of the challenges is to accurately judge how much prior knowledge about the given subject readers already possess. If you assume that readers are more knowledgeable than they actually are, the story will confuse more than inform. And, if you underestimate readers’ knowledge, space that would otherwise be used to provide new facts and insights is instead wasted on information they already know.
That’s why stories about West Virginia’s governor and attorney general criticizing the Environmental Protection Agency usually omit explanations of their primary reason for doing so – their belief that EPA regulations cause major job losses in the coal industry. That this belief is false is neither here nor there, but more about that in a moment.
There’s another omission from most stories about criticisms of the EPA and it’s an odd one because, whereas readers can be assumed to understand that politicians fear job losses, they cannot be assumed to understand a primary counterweight that causes the EPA to issue its regulations: the degree to which the burning of coal damages our health. It’s a subject rarely mentioned in news stories and, as far as I can determine, never mentioned by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. In the dozens of speeches, press releases, and tweets issued by both, I have been unable to find a single instance in which either man has acknowledged, never mind discussed, the health consequences of burning coal.
So, in the interest of informed debate, let’s summarize those consequences so they can be placed on the other side of the scale as we try to judge whether EPA regulations are or are not worthwhile.
To imagine life without clean air regulations, we’ll visit China where large volumes of U.S.-mined coal are burned and where authorities are not nearly as squeamish about public health. Between 1950 and 1980, the Chinese government provided free coal for heating to people who lived north of the Huai River, but did not do so for those living south of the river. This resulted in significantly more coal being burned north of the river and significantly higher levels of pollutants in the air. In other words, the Chinese government inadvertently created a natural experiment. And the result? Life expectancies north of the river were reduced by an average of five and half years due to increased prevalence of cardiorespiratory diseases.
Such results aren’t unique to China. A 1993 study compared health outcomes in six U.S. cities that had varying degrees of particulate matter in the air. Residents of the most polluted city, Steubenville, Ohio, across the Ohio River from Weirton, were 26 percent more likely to die prematurely than residents of Portage, Wis., which had the cleanest air. That difference translates into more than two years of lost life expectancy. Meanwhile, a 2008 survey of epidemiological studies showed that more than 500,000 Americans die each year from cardiopulmonary conditions linked to fine particulate matter in the air, much of it from burning coal. Notably, both studies were based on data collected two decades after passage of the original Clean Air Act, which demonstrates how much work remains to be done.
Asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, lung cancer, stroke, and cystic fibrosis are crippling and sometimes deadly diseases whose incidence is significantly increased by burning coal. If we also take into account the effects of mercury emissions from coal, the latest flashpoint in the battle over regulations, the scourge becomes even worse. And we haven’t even mentioned coal’s contribution to global warming and the polluted water supplies, flooding, and the growing prevalence of black lung disease that afflicts residents in West Virginia’s coalfields.
Except for manmade global warming, whose existence they question or deny, none of this is discussed or acknowledged by our governor and attorney general who tell us their tireless opposition to the EPA is in the interest of West Virginia and of jobs. Yet, the credibility of that claim owes more to repetition than it does to fact.
It’s true that since 1940, when West Virginia had 130,000 coal miners, more than 100,000 mining jobs have been lost. But, 90,000 were lost before the 1970s when the EPA and the Clean Air Act were born. Why? Underground automation and surface mining techniques such as strip mining and mountaintop removal enabled the industry to produce the same amount of coal with fewer workers. In fact, coal industry job loss slowed markedly after the advent of the EPA and, since President Obama has been in office, employment has actually grown in West Virginia. That’s why, despite repeated industry predictions of economic cataclysm, no independent study has ever found that environmental regulation caused large-scale job losses in the coal industry. It simply hasn’t happened.
So, the question becomes, when our governor and attorney general attack the EPA, what are they defending? Jobs in the coal industry? No. The health of West Virginians and Americans? Emphatically not. About the only thing left is profits for the industry – an industry that is based almost entirely out of state, which is why the bulk of economic benefits from coal land elsewhere, leaving West Virginia’s coal counties among the most impoverished in America.
West Virginia political leaders and commentators refuse to put coal’s costs in the balance against its benefits. That’s why we must — for the sake of our economy, of our health and of the health of others all around the world.
— Sean O’Leary can be contacted at email@example.com. A version of this column with links to sources can be found at www.the-state-of-my-state.com