Out of Sight, Out of Mind: The Eastern Kentucky Environmental and Health Crisis

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: The Eastern KY Environmental and Health Crisis

By: Madison Mantz

Despite the Commonwealth’s motto, “United we stand, divided we fall”, Kentucky is no stranger to division. Perhaps our most highlighted divide is within the realm of sports; the renowned Kentucky Wildcat or Louisville Cardinal rivalry that on game night, tears apart families. However, there is another stark division in Kentucky that has come to the forefront over the last year; the urban-rural divide. In the words of Louisville Metro Councilmember Brandon Coan, “Louisville is not Kentucky, sir.” Coan made this statement in response to California’s travel ban that was imposed on Kentucky and his sentiments were shared across social media as citizens decried the rest of the bluegrass state.[1] The thing is, the metropolitan areas of Kentucky, namely Louisville and Lexington, are very different than their less populated counterparts. Rural Kentucky, specifically rural Eastern Kentucky, faces several unique challenges and is currently in the midst of an Environmental and Health Crisis that is not plaguing urban Kentucky.

Just this Month, the Appalachian Regional Commission released a report depicting health disparities throughout the Appalachian region. The news was not good for Eastern Kentucky; one of the major findings was that although death comes earlier in Appalachia compared to the rest of nation, it comes even earlier in Eastern Kentucky (Central Appalachia)[2]. Check out these startling figures:

·      Heart Disease Mortality Rates

o   The Appalachian Region’s heart disease mortality rate (204 per 100,000) is 17 percent higher than the national rate (175 per 100,000). Central Appalachia’s heart disease mortality rate (249 per 100,000) is 42 percent higher than the national rate[3].

·      Cancer Mortality Rates

o   The Appalachian Region’s cancer mortality rate (184 per 100,000) is 10 percent higher than the national rate (168 per 100,000). Central Appalachia’s cancer mortality rate (222 per 100,000) is 32 percent higher than the national rate[4].

·      Years of Potential Life Lost (YPLL) (measure of premature mortality; indicative of less healthy communities)

o   The Appalachian Region’s YPLL is 25 percent higher than the rest of the nation. Central Appalachia’s YPLL is 69 percent higher than the national mark[5]. The study specifically stated, “Appalachian Kentucky (10,880 per 100,000 population) has the highest YPLL rate in the Region, a mark 34 percent higher than the rate in non-Appalachian Kentucky (8,095).”

It is overwhelmingly obvious from these results that something is causing the people of Central Appalachia, primarily Appalachian Eastern Kentucky, to die at a rate exponentially higher than the rest of the world. One can acknowledge several reasons for this discrepancy; including high poverty levels, below average healthcare, and raging tobacco usage. However, in an article entitled “Unintended Consequences of the Clean Air Act: Mortality Rates in Appalachian Coal Mining Communities”, Michael Hendryx and Benjamin Holland traced the connection to the practice of mountain-top removal mining[6]. Not only is mountain-top removal a practice concentrated in Central Appalachia, but it didn’t become popular until the 1990 Amendments to the Clean Air Act promoted it as a cleaner alternative to reduce pollution. This harsh process involves the use of heavy machinery and explosives to blast through hundreds of feet of rock to strike coal layers. Hendryx and Holland found that respiratory-related mortality rates increased post-1990 Amendment and grew in proportion to the growing industry of mountain-top removal[7]. Now, this is just one study, but doesn’t a connection such as this warrant further research?

The new administration apparently does not think so. The Interior Department has recently halted a study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that sought to study the harmful health effects that living near surface mining may cause[8]. In the words of U.S. Representative John Yarmuth, “The fact that mountaintop removal permits have been approved when there has never been a federal study on the health effects of mountaintop removal mining is shameful enough. To now prevent this study from being completed would be reprehensible.”[9] Furthermore, with the data released by the Appalachian Regional Commission, this decision is even more outrageous.

Reprehensible, shameful, outrageous… these are all words that I feel should be used universally to describe the Central Appalachian crisis. People are dying at a rate far higher than the national average and resources aren’t being invested into getting to the bottom of the problem! Its really sickening. Yet, a widely expressed belief that I have seen on social media instead, is more along the lines of “backwoods Kentucky has made their bed and now they have to lay in it”. The irony is not lost on me that the very administration rural Kentucky helped elect is the one which seeks to evade the answers and keep it stagnant. While it may be true that Louisville and Lexington are the only areas in Kentucky that did not vote conservative in this past year’s election; this kind of divisive blame-game talk only augments the feelings of isolation and betrayal felt in more rural areas. From my experience, those are the very reasons that they wanted such a radical government departure in the first place.

As someone who grew up in a town of 1200 people, with one-stop light, on the border of West Virginia, I have grown up seeing opportunity dwindle along with the coal-mining industry. On the flip side, I have witnessed how hazardous and unsustainable it is, my next-door neighbor with black lung could tell you all about it. In times such as this when rural Kentucky is at its most vulnerable both environmentally and in regards to health, Kentucky sure could use a lot more unity and a lot less division.


[1] Jacob Ryan, ‘Louisville, Not Kentucky:’ Dissecting the Commonwealth’s Urban-Rural Divide, WFPL, (July 1, 2017), https://wfpl.org/louisville-not-kentucky-dissecting-commonwealths-urban-rural-divide/.

[2]Bill Estep, “Death comes sooner in Appalachia. But it comes much sooner in Eastern Kentucky.”, Lexington Herald Leader, (Aug. 24, 2017), http://www.kentucky.com/news/state/article169037857.html; referencing Health Disparities in Appalachia, Appalachian Regional Commission, (Aug. 2017), https://www.arc.gov/research/researchreportdetails.asp?REPORT_ID=138.

[3] PDA, INC., Health Disparities in Appalachia, Appalachian Regional Commission, (Aug. 2017), https://www.healthy-ky.org/res/images/resources/Health_Disparities_in_Appalachia_August_2017.pdf.

[4] Id.

[5] Id

[6] Michael Hendryx, Benjamin Holland; Unintended consequences of the Clean Air Act: Mortality rates in Appalachian coal mining communities, Environmental Science & Policy, (Sep. 2016), http://ac.els-cdn.com/S1462901116301137/1-s2.0-S1462901116301137-main.pdf?_tid=b78ccfe0-8e89-11e7-a755-00000aab0f26&acdnat=1504210960_85c664c1231d0bdd2c126c40fc054550.

[7] Id.

[8] James Bruggers, Trump Administration halts strip-mining health study across Central Appalachia, Courier-Journal (Aug. 21, 2017),  http://www.courier-journal.com/story/tech/science/environment/2017/08/21/trump-agency-halts-strip-mining-health-study-across-appalachia/586800001/.

[9] Id.