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Soft-spoken researcher rattles Appalachian coal industry

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- It didn't take long for the new associate professor at West Virginia University to give the state's most powerful industry a bad case of heartburn.

Michael Hendryx's first study at the Department of Community Medicine, launched not long after his 2006 arrival here from the Pacific Northwest, focused on coal mining's effects on public health. He compared mining data with a large survey of West Virginians to see whether there was a correlation between mining -- notably, mountaintop-removal projects -- and medical problems.

"I remember working on merging the data sets together and trying to control for age and smoking rates and poverty and these other risk factors and finally setting up the model, hitting the run button and not knowing what I would see," he recalled in a recent interview. "Sure enough, there it was. I said, 'Oh my God!' I was surprised, frankly."

So were coal executives, who didn't think much of his results, which figure prominently in a federal regulatory push derided by the industry and its allies as a "war on coal." Hendryx has become synonymous with research critical of mountaintop-removal mining, much to the delight of environmentalists.

"Dr. Hendryx has been a pioneer in really giving the rigorous peer review that has been needed to demonstrate the health problems that mountaintop removal has caused in Appalachia," Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, said in an interview.

Hendryx directs the West Virginia Rural Health Research Center and chairs the Department of Health Policy, Management and Leadership. His resume lists more than a dozen peer-reviewed articles on the health and societal impacts of coal mining in Appalachia.

He had never done a environmental study before arriving in West Virginia from Washington State University. The native of Rockford, Ill., knew little about Appalachian coal mining.

"I knew I was coming here and I wanted to acquaint myself with the issues," Hendryx said. "By chance, really, at about the time I first moved here, I learned about this book called 'Big Coal.'"

Jeff Goodell's "Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future" includes anecdotes from Appalachian residents complaining of poor health and blaming mining industry activities. When Hendryx looked for studies on the issue, he said he was appalled by the lack of research. He has since started generating a mountain of his own work on those issues.

Hendryx has helped conduct studies linking coal mining to increased cancer rates, higher mortality rates and birth defects (Greenwire, June 22, 2011). He has questioned the economic value of coal mining to West Virginia and has joined other scientists in calling for a moratorium on mountaintop-removal mining.

"I like the fact that I have been able to make, I think, what are some important contributions," he said. "I think the coal mining issue is an important public health issue."

'I like to be left alone'

Hendryx has a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Nevada and a doctorate in psychology from Northwestern University. He's also done a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Chicago.

He started his academic work with a plan to go into clinical psychology.

"When I first started graduate school in psychology and started to get my first exposure to clinical work, I realized quickly that it was not what I wanted," he said. "Fortunately, I was in a psychology department that emphasized research, and I learned that I really liked doing that, so I switched to a focus on research methods."

Hendryx then spent much of his career studying people's access to health services, particularly mental health. His passion involved issues affecting the health of communities.

In West Virginia's coal mining communities, he said, he found a need for research.

"Even though my prior research had been in other topic areas," Hendryx said, "the general research methods that I used could be easily transferred to the coal mining topic."

One of Hendryx's earliest peer-reviewed papers was about patients who have psychiatric episodes in general hospitals without psychiatric units.

His first work showing a potential link between coal mining and health problems was published in 2008 in the American Journal of Public Health.

That started Hendryx on the path where he continues today.

"I was hooked," he said.

Even with his passion for research and his criticism of mountaintop-removal coal mining, Hendryx is an understated and soft-spoken scholar who shies away from public attention.

Sitting at his desk recently in WVU's Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center, Hendryx demurred from talking about his personal life. He did mention a like of gardening, travel and spending time with his wife.

"I have mixed feelings about [the attention], frankly," he said. "I'm an academic type, and usually I like to be left alone ... to play with computer data sets and so on."

Industry fights back

But his research attracted a sometimes-harsh spotlight.

The increasingly negative response to his work from industry groups and supportive politicians surprised Hendryx.

"At first, they ignored me," he said. "They ignored the research, and to some extent that is still the response."

The industry and its backers have been fighting back. The National Mining Association has hired consultants whose studies rebutted some of Hendryx's work and faulted his reliance on self-reported data.

Last summer, law firm Crowell & Moring LLP posted a critique of Hendryx's widely reported paper on birth defects, saying it failed to account for "consanguinity," or inbreeding (Greenwire, July 12, 2011). Hendryx said the notion that Appalachian communities have high rates of inbreeding is incorrect.

Earlier this year, Alpha Natural Resources Inc. sought subpoenas against Hendryx and WVU and fought to keep his studies out of a West Virginia federal case over a mining permit (Greenwire, Jan. 27).

Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas) said at a recent hearing, "We have bureaucrats that invent junk science and bogus analysis. And they do it because we have environmentalists who want to move beyond coal."

Hendryx said he tries to stay above the fray and avoids reading what some have called "pretty nasty blogs" about him. He did express some annoyance, however, at industry representatives looking deep into his work.

"I have been subject to two very large [Freedom of Information Act] requests by coal industry attorneys," he said in a recent email. "[T]hese requests in my view are attempts to harass me and force me to waste time responding to."

Hendryx added, "I guess it's naive thinking back on it now, but I guess I was. For me, in my irrational focus on rationality, I thought the evidence might be important and that people would listen to it."

Some scholars have also expressed reservations about Hendryx's work.

Jonathan Borak, professor at Yale University's School of Public Health, faulted Hendryx's work in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Focusing on Hendryx's study on coal mining and Appalachian mortality rates, Borak, who had also done research for the National Mining Association, said Hendryx went too far in blaming coal for ill health (Greenwire, Feb. 16).

"I think that [Hendryx] has made a positive contribution by bringing attention to an issue," said Borak, who is a principal at the consulting firm Jonathan Borak & Co. Inc.

In an interview, Borak talked about research on the many sources of poor health outcomes -- from poverty and customs to social networks. He doesn't discount that coal mining could be hurting people but says the truth is "not yet known." He said Hendryx had done "a disservice" by focusing too much on the resource when examining poor health in Appalachia.

Amid back-and-forth arguments and counterarguments, Hendryx resolved to further his research beyond pointing out possible connections between coal and health problems (Greenwire, July 18). He wants to show how and why he says the industry is hurting the people of Appalachia.

"I'm going to continue to work on it," he said, sitting by his desk. "I think we have demonstrated pretty convincingly that populations of people that live in [mountaintop-removal mining] communities have health problems that are more severe than people who live in other communities."

A recent paper in the journal Microcirculation, for example, found blood vessel problems in rats exposed to air particles that were collected near a mountaintop-removal mining site.

"I think coal is a causal factor in the persistent poverty that our state faces," Hendryx said, noting that mining counties like Mingo, Logan and Boone have high rates of unemployment. "And that in turn is the most powerful predictor of an entire set of poor health outcomes."

Don't say 'WVU study' -- university spokesman

Last year, WVU spokesman John Bolt sent Charleston Gazette reporter and blogger Ken Ward Jr. an email distancing the university from scholarly research. He did not specifically mention Hendryx.

The email, posted on Ward's "Coal Tattoo" blog, said, "we're asking those who write about our faculty's research to refrain from describing those as a 'WVU study' or using other phrasing that would imply or could be interpreted as the institution taking a position on any particular issue."

Despite taking on powerful interests, Hendryx said, "I have never been pressured, or instructed or encouraged by anyone at the university to stop this line of work."

WVU is also involved in the Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science (ARIES) -- an industry-funded but independent consortium based at Virginia Tech with the goal of improving knowledge of coal mining and its impacts. John Craynon, former chief of regulatory support at the federal Office of Surface Mining, is helping lead the effort.

Hendryx said the group "was started partly in response to my work as well as the work of others that have shown harmful environmental effects from mining."

Hendryx said he would plow ahead on his research regardless of what critics say. Depending on time and resources, he may even venture into other subjects like Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling.

"This is my opinion," Hendryx said. "I think that coal mining in West Virginia is the single most important public health problem that we face because of the indirect and direct results."

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