Opinion

National Leaders Finally Waking Up to the Health Dangers of Coal

When people think of coal country, they rarely think of the windswept high deserts of New Mexico and Arizona.

But coal is here. And one needs only look at our region’s elevated asthma rates, degraded water resources and toxic landscapes to see the dirty legacy of unchecked coal development on public lands.

Thankfully, the Department of Interior is considering new rules to finally reform the outdated federal coal program so the environmental and health costs of coal development on public lands are taken into consideration before these lands can be leased for mining.

In May, 14 Senators, including Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich from New Mexico, sent a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell expressing their support for these long overdue coal reforms.

As an organization that is committed to the well-being of the people of New Mexico, we feel it is important to put a human face on the devastating impacts coal has wrought in rural New Mexico to show that these reforms will yield a huge benefit for the health of our people.

In rural San Juan County, which has a large Navajo population and where coal activity is prevalent, the American Lung Association reports residents are at elevated risk for lung diseases. The ALA indicates there are 2,885 cases of pediatric asthma, 8,442 cases of adult asthma and 5,219 people diagnosed with COPD in this northwestern New Mexico county alone.

Moreover, these risks locally are mirrored by national figures on the adverse health risks of coal development. As we recently stated in a July 20 letter from a broad coalition of New Mexico health advocates to Interior Secretary Jewell, the adverse health impacts of coal-related air pollution include increased rates of lung and heart disease. According to Harvard University’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, “[p]articulates and oxides of nitrogen and sulfur kill over 24,000 people annually, including 2,800 from lung cancer.” Further, pollution from coal operations produces 38,200 non-fatal heart attacks annually.

And the health risks are not only contained to the air we breathe.

In a state where clean water is always at a premium, largely disadvantaged and Native American communities in New Mexico have witnessed their water resources siphoned off by years of coal mining on public lands. One of the primary aquifers serving the Navajo Nation has been degraded by decades of irresponsible and rampant coal mining. A 2011 study by the University of Arizona found that one coal company’s decades of coal mining had depleted Navajo Aquifer storage by 21,000 to 53,000 acre feet of water, well above what the company’s environmental consultants predicted.

Clearly, it is well past the time for a reasoned look at this industry and its impacts on the health and well-being of our population. We support the efforts of the administration to take on this fight.

The rules governing the development of coal on public lands have not been updated since the Nixon administration — well before what we now know about the health and climate risks of a coal program that, frankly, allows industry to pollute at the cost of human lives in the west and beyond. New Mexico health advocates thank President Obama and Interior Secretary Jewell for beginning the process to rectify this situation.

Barbara K. Webber is Executive Director for Health Action New Mexico, an organization that helps to influence and develop policy solutions that improve the health of people living in New Mexico. Before working at Health Action New Mexico, Barbara was an analyst at the New Mexico Health Policy Commission.

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