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Big Coal's PR Breakthrough: Blame Inbreeding, Not Mining, for Birth Defects

Coal industry lawyers predictably attacked a recent study that found a link between Appalachia mountaintop removal mines and higher rates of birth defects. And what better way to discredit the 5-year scientific study then to offer up inbreeding in central Appalachia as a reasonable explanation?

Lawyers with Crowell & Moring, a firm that has "significant experience in both community and birth defect litigation" posted an memo on its website intended to discredit the study. At one point the statement turns towards the classic -- and debunked -- Appalachia stereotype:

The study failed to account for consanquinity (sic), one of the most prominent sources of birth defects.
Charleston Gazette blogger Ken Ward Jr. not only uncovered the statement posted on the Crowell & Moring law firm's website, he had the good sense to save and repost it after the not-so-subtle jab was deleted.

The law firm has been backpedaling ever since. A spokeswoman tried to explain to Ward that consanguinity "is one of a number of commonly addressed issues in studies of this type, regardless of geography."

Meaning, what exactly? Consanguinity (it was misspelled in their statement) refers directly to being of the same kinship. Are these lawyers merely saying that birth defects are genetic? Hardly. Consanguinity is commonly used as a legal definition to determine whether a couple can marry. The lawyer-speak was a thinly veiled reference to inbreeding in central Appalachia.

There's a reason that lawyers employed to defend the interests of the coal industry are willing to stoop to inbreeding in an attempt to discredit the study conducted by Washington State University and West Virginia University. The study compared the prevalence of birth defects in mountaintop coal mining areas compared with other coal mining areas and with non-mining areas in central Appalachia between 1996 and 1999 and again from 2000 to 2003. Here's what they found within the 1.8 million birth records they analyzed:

Overall, the prevalence rate for any defect was significant in both periods but was higher in the more recent period. In the earlier period the rate of birth defects was 13 percent higher in mountaintop mining areas and increased in 42 percent higher in the later period.
Forty-two percent is an outrageously high number. And as the coal mining lawyers astutely noted in their previously posted statement, the study will likely trigger further investigations and lawsuits. Mountaintop mining operations are no stranger to litigation. But they're often focused on the environmental implications that come from stripping mountains of forest before blasting into them to access the coal inside.

Mountaintop removal is defended as an efficient means of accessing coal, which in turn supports the industry and the workers it employs. But this study offers a different view and provides one measurement of what this technique costs the community.

Photo from Flickr user hans.gerwitz, CC 2.0

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