Research Examines the Financial, Health Costs of Coal Mining

The costs of illness and premature deaths in Appalachia related to coal mining far outweigh economic benefits the industry brings to the region, said Michael Hendryx, Ph.D., associate director of the West Virginia University Institute for Health Policy Research, in a new study published in the journal Public Health Reports.

“The human cost of the Appalachian coal mining economy outweighs its economic benefits,” Hendryx and co-author Melissa Ahern, Ph.D., of Washington State University said in their paper, “Mortality in Appalachian Coal Mining Regions: The Value of Statistical Life Lost.”

“If we were serious about developing a strong economy, we’d develop an economy not dependent on coal,” Hendryx said. “Throughout Appalachia, people in counties with no coal mining operations experience better health, a cleaner environment and greater economic prosperity than counties where mining takes place.”

While coal mining contributed $8 billion to Appalachia in terms of economic impacts, the costs of shortened life spans associated with coal operations ranged from $16.979 billion to $84.544 billion, the study found. Figures are from 2005, the latest year for which mortality rates were available.

“Everyone is Affected”

“Those who are falling ill and dying young are not just the coal miners,” Hendryx says. “Everyone who lives near the mines or processing plants or transportation centers is affected by chronic socioeconomic weakness that takes a toll in longevity and health.”

Coal mining areas in Appalachia experience almost 11,000 more deaths each year compared with comparable areas elsewhere in the nation, with approximately 2,300 of those deaths related to environmental factors such as air and water pollution made worse by mining, Hendryx said.

“We know that in West Virginia we have high rates of poverty and illness, and we’ve been led to believe by government and industry that the coal companies help by creating jobs,” he added. “But that’s not true. Premature mortality is strongly linked to socioeconomic conditions where people live, and the evidence is that those areas of West Virginia that do not have coal do better. They develop economic alternatives.”


The authors analyzed more than a quarter century of economic and health data in Appalachia coupled with economists’ assessments of the coal industry’s economic impacts. Hendryx and Ahern compared those assessments with the standard the federal government assigns – the Value of Statistical Life (VSL) – to draw the conclusion that coal mining is a drag rather than a boon to the Appalachian economy.

“VSL is a tool to try to help make policy decisions,” Hendryx explained. “It’s not the actual value of a real human being. It’s a way to estimate how society values investments to protect life.”

West Virginia has approximately 20,000 coal miners, down from a high of 130,000 miners in 1940, while the number of tons of coal mined has increased.

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