William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review


In the mid-nineteenth century, coal mined in Central Appalachia began to flow into industrial markets. Those mines and the coal they produced provided jobs, put food on family tables in coalfield households, and even provided housing for hundreds of thousands of coal miners and their families. The bounty from America’s expanding coalfields fueled the Industrial Revolution and powered the nation’s steel mills, factories,steamboats, and railroads. It powered America’s defense through two World Wars and later military conflicts. Coal-fired power plants generated more than half of the electricity used in the United States in the latter quarter of the twentieth century.

In her definitive book on the subject, Coal: A Human History, Barbara Freese observes that in many ways the mineral could be viewed as a gift from God that produced undeniable good—as well as evil health and environmental externalities. Coal’s Jekyll-and-Hyde-like qualities have long been demonstrable and well-known where coal is mined. Outside of coal country, however, coal’s dark side has largely escaped public attention.

For well over one hundred years, American courts, politicians, and community leaders often gave an approving nod to the positive economic contributions of the coal industry while turning a blind eye to coal’s many harmful externalities. In an 1886 opinion of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Coal v. Sanderson, the court cavalierly dismissed the pleas of a family whose property and livelihood had been despoiled by the polluting acid coal mine drainage pumped from a nearby mine into a stream that traversed their farm: "The plaintiff’s grievance, is for a mere personal inconvenience, and we are of opinion that mere private personal inconveniences, arising in this way and under such circumstances, must yield to the necessities of a great public industry, which although in the hands of a private corporation, subserves a great public interest. To encourage the development of the great natural resources of a country, trifling inconveniences to particular persons must sometimes give way to the necessities of a great community."

More than a century later, a broad expanse of coal-related “trifling inconveniences” have been fully documented. A New York Academy of Sciences analysis emphasized the economic costs of coal externalities: "Each stage in the life cycle of coal—extraction, transport, processing, and combustion—generates a waste stream and carries multiple hazards for health and the environment. These costs are external to the coal industry and are thus often considered 'externalities.' We estimate that the life cycle effects of coal and the waste stream generated are costing the U.S. public a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually. Many of these so-called externalities are, moreover, cumulative. Accounting for the damages conservatively doubles to triples the price of electricity from coal per kWh generated, making wind, solar, and other forms of nonfossil fuel power generation, along with investments in efficiency and electricity conservation methods, economically competitive."

The coal industry and its supporters have consistently denied and minimized the impact of the adverse economic and health impacts of mining. The following discussion will examine two examples of coal’s externalities that the industry has disputed or denied, despite evidence of serious public health concerns.

The first example relates to black lung disease. Since the earliest days of the last century, coal companies and their agents denied that inhaled coal dust caused black lung disease. Then, when the denial could no longer withstand the weight of science and logic, the industry fought at every turn to avoid government regulation of miner exposure to the lethal airborne coal dust in mine work places. Beyond opposing regulation, the industry denied any responsibility or liability as thousands of its own employees were afflicted by the disabling and often fatal pulmonary disease. Today, despite concrete evidence that the incidence of black lung disease is increasing at an alarming rate, the coal industry’s now-familiar response is to deny the need for additional regulatory efforts to protect miners’ lives.

The second example of health concerns arising from coal mining operations focuses on so-called “mountaintop removal” coal strip mining (“MTR”). For two decades, people living in close proximity to large Appalachian MTR strip mines have expressed serious concerns about MTR’s health impacts. Those concerns have intensified over the last decade as peer-reviewed epidemiology studies have identified correlations between MTR operations and negative public health outcomes. Affected communities fear that exposure to mining-generated air and water pollution has caused a disproportionate range of serious illnesses and diseases in contrast to non-mining communities of the region that the studies show are not similarly situated.

Consistent with coal industry management’s historic proclivity for denial and deflection of its negative externalities, coal interests not only reject epidemiologists’ investigations and findings of correlations between coal mining and public health impacts, they also strongly opposed a $1 million government-funded study of possible causal links between MTR operations and adverse health impacts experienced by those who live and work nearby. As discussed below, instead of supporting objective unbiased scientific analysis, to allay community concerns, the industry and its supporters have turned again to denial, attacking the science, the scientists, and black lung victims.

These two examples provide a useful lens to examine concerns about the impact of coal mining practices on the health of coal miners and the communities where they live and work. Ironically, the federal Mine Safety and Health Act declares that “[t]he first priority and concern of all in the coal mining industry must be the health and safety of its most precious resource—the miner.” Those words ring hollow today, as coal miners and their communities continue to bear the burden of disabling lung afflictions and a plethora of illnesses and diseases. Degraded health is not a natural consequence of working in or living near a coal mine. Disease and illnesses arising from exposure to environmental contaminants are preventable. In this Article we argue that, in Central Appalachia, objective science and strict enforcement of occupational and environmental laws must be the first priority of industry and government regulators.