The report from the U.S. Geological Survey hasn't been finalized yet, but preliminary results suggest people living near surface coal mines in Appalachia are exposed to different–and more toxic–chemicals in the soil and water than people in other parts of the country. In the piece, reporter Alice Su spoke with Bill Orem, one of the study's authors.
Bill Orem, USGS research geochemist and project chief, said mining areas display “unusually high” pH and conductivity levels in the water, abnormal air particulate loading, and irregular levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in soil and streams. Several PAH compounds are probable or possible human carcinogens.
“The water chemistry is definitely affected by something,” said Orem, who emphasized that the findings are preliminary and studies are ongoing. The coal-derived compounds in soil samples were also “certainly different from soils we’re seeing in non-mining areas.” The air content of silica particles, which cause lung disease, was “definitely higher.”
“You can see that just from looking at the filters,” Orem said.
Orem cautioned that the USGS would be “prudent” about connecting preliminary results with health problems. “You have to be conservative in your statements. It can’t be driven by people’s feelings,” he said. “It has to be a scientific, data-driven process.”
Once this study becomes final, it could provide the hard evidence that scientists have been looking for to explain high levels of disease near surface mines. Previous studies have shown that mining communities have higher instances of disease, but so far there hasn't been data on what specifically in these communities is causing sickness.