HAZARD – Does surface mining harm the health of people in the east Kentucky coal field? And why haven’t more elected officials participated in this summer’s meetings to gather ideas to diversify and improve the economy of Appalachian Kentucky?
Those were the two biggest questions raised Friday as 18 leaders of the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative gathered in Hazard for a meeting of chairs of the SOAR working groups that have been holding “listening sessions” all over the region.
While many if not most working groups are still compiling their lists of recommendations, Dr. Nikki Stone, chair of the health working group, finalized her group’s list with a tie for number one: coordinated school health and environmental health.
The topic of environmental health, particularly health effects from mountaintop removal and other large-scale surface mining, was a top concern of listening session participants, Stone said in an interview.
“The main thing is that people are very curious about what the truth is,” said Stone, a pediatric dentist in Hazard. “There’s apparently a growing body of research papers on the effects … Everybody is curious how big of an impact that specifically is having on people’s health,” including birth defects and cancer rates.
Stone noted the research and reported her working group’s top priorities during a SOAR-related meeting in early August. The event was part of a tour by Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, arranged by U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, who co-founded SOAR with Gov. Steve Beshear.
A study published in the Journal of Environmental Research compared mountaintop-mining areas of Central Appalachia to non-mining areas and found a correlation of mining with birth defects. (See http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0013935111001484.)
Several studies have found other such correlations, but Stone said she and her working group want to know if there is causation – if mining in fact does affect public health.
“I hope to see that we’ll get a definitive answer on the effects,” Stone said. “And maybe we’ll find a way to impact it.”
At the Aug. 5 meeting, Frieden told Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader that definitive conclusions are often difficult in such studies, but “If invited in, we could certainly look at it.” Rogers told Estep, “We need to know if there’s anything to it, certainly.”
Some of the Health Working Group’s other priorities, after coordinated school health and environmental health, are smoke-free initiatives, substance abuse and community wellness initiatives.
The eight working groups dealing with policy issues need to prioritize a total of 10 to 15 ideas for a “multi-year effort,” said Chuck Fluharty, president and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute, which is staffing SOAR until it can find a permanent executive director.
During the middle of the meeting, there was a discussion of what Fluharty called the “elephant in the room”– the relative lack of elected officials at most of the listening sessions.
Several working-group chairs said their plans will require policy changes, and elected officials must be a part of the process in order for the changes to take place. Others cautioned that elected officials may not be so important.
“Leadership comes at a whole bunch of different levels and it seems from our region from time to time we expect too much from our elected officials,” said Jeff Whitehead, executive director of the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program in Hazard. “I get a sense people are sitting around waiting for one person to make all the change.”
Phil Osborne, a Lexington consultant and chair of the Tourism Working Group, said, “We don’t put too much emphasis on elected officials to get us out of our mess,” suggesting that some officials contribute to the “mess.”
Fluharty expressed the overall importance of having more resources behind communications, to elected officials and people of the region, as SOAR moves forward.
At the same time, Fluharty charged the chairs to ensure that their reporting gives voice to the people of the region and not to their own opinions or those of Rogers and Beshear.
“We would not have paddled up this stream without the leadership who have gotten us there,” Fluharty said. “We have to protect them to sustain the paddle.”
From the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is providing independent coverage of SOAR activities with funding from the Rural Policy Research Institute, which is providing SOAR staff support. For more information: Al.Cross@uky.edu.