Expert Commentary

Coal country and the research battle: Interview with Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette

2013 interview with Ken Ward Jr., of The Charleston Gazette (W.Va.), one of the country's leading voices on energy and environment issues.

Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette (West Virginia) is one of the country’s premier reporters on issues of energy and the environment. A prize-winning journalist who files stories from the heart of Appalachia, he has been recognized as a critical watchdog voice on the coal industry. His blog “Coal Tattoo: Mining’s Mark on Our World” rounds up the latest news and information relating to extractive industries and their impacts on people in the region. Ward also frequently reviews and spotlights the latest academic and government research that bears on the energy industries he covers.

As part of our ongoing “research chat” series, Journalist’s Resource caught up with him to ask about his work and the difficult dynamics relating to scientific and social science research in the beat he covers. The following is an edited transcript:


Journalist’s Resource: At your blog Coal Tattoo you are constantly dealing with conflicting information under somewhat contentious and hostile conditions. How do you keep your bearings as a watchdog reporter? What are some of the rules of thumb that you might suggest to others, particularly young reporters?

Ken Ward Jr.: I guess I would say the silly old saying, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” [laughs] It’s a silly old saying for a reason — it’s true. Like so many other issues facing the country, these coal issues especially here in Appalachia are very emotional. There’s a lot of overheated rhetoric, fueled mostly by the public-relations machine from the coal industry and the coal industry supporters among political figures and elected officials. Really, the best thing to do is to kind of wipe all that aside and not let the political rhetoric guide too much of what you’re doing and try to go for facts, for science, and for things that are knowable and provable. That, I think, is the best course to try to take. Because it’s one of these issues that’s really reached the point where a lot of folks don’t really care if what they say is correct, as long as they think it scores some points for their side. I think way too much journalism is people in journalism playing along and turning the reader into someone who’s watching a ping-pong match.

JR: In coal country, the findings of the latest academic, think tank or government-backed research are a big deal, as they help shape laws and regulations. But there’s always the risk that money can influence findings. How do you see the intersection of money and research right now? You’ve been writing about the Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science (ARIES) at Virginia Tech, which as you’ve pointed out receives coal industry funding.

KenWard_CoalTattooBlogKen Ward Jr.: It’s nothing new for an industry that is facing potentially more stringent regulations because of health impacts to try and influence that — tobacco, asbestos, you can go through a long list of them. For example, in writing about ARIES here, one of the things that really kind of amazed me is that some of the people that are involved in it really think that asking questions about the funding — and whether or not the funding influences the science — they think that’s out of bounds. I approached one of the authors who’s received ARIES funding who has had at least one paper published and presented at this conference; I asked this particular author, “I’ve read your paper and you didn’t disclose that ARIES funded it, and why not?” This author said, “I didn’t really think about it. Why would I need to do that?” And I found that pretty remarkable. Interestingly, one of the authors of a project paper, Mark Partridge, has said, “This is something that we in academia need to think more carefully about.” When I contacted Dr. Partridge, he was very open about the funding and said, “Yes, we got money from them.” He obviously was concerned and wanted to be open about it.

What I think one of the red flags for journalists should be is that, if researchers think that it’s not valid to ask who funds them, either they’ve got something to hide or they’re being incredibly naive. In this particular case with ARIES, Mike Karmis, who’s an engineering professor at Virginia Tech and who’s kind of in charge of the project, has a standard line that he repeats over and over again: That they call them “industrial partners,” and they don’t have any direct control over the study design, the research program or how the results are reported. But at the conference they had there, a guy from one of the mining companies — who helped found the project — got up and explained in the initial meetings, “Here are the things we want you to research” and “Here’s the research questions we think need to be answered.” Coming up with the initial questions that the researchers are going to try to answer — that’s two-thirds of the ballgame right there.

JR: You were good enough to alert us to concerns over a new paper about Appalachia and the “resource curse” thesis that we recently reviewed for the site. What raised red flags for you? There was the industry funding issue, which you dug out through reporting, but what were the other things that made you say, “Hey, I’ve got to dig into this a little more”?

Ken Ward Jr.: I was doing some research on this specific issue on the natural resource curse. I was trying to go back and read some of the original academic work about where the term came from, and I think a link to this study popped up. At the same time, I had been asking people who had been running this ARIES project at Virginia Tech: “Where’s the work? What studies do you have published?” And this popped up on a list of papers that they had done. But really, if you read the bottom of the first page where it lists the authors and their contact information, it has this really vague statement about partial research funding provided by the ARIES program. If you go on and read the next paragraph, it says that the articles in these sessions — it was at a conference — are not subject to the journal’s standard refereeing process. So that was something that jumped out at me right away. What is this journal’s standard refereeing process? Journals vary. But if this paper didn’t go through those, then what did it go through and how was it reviewed? And was this just something that was prepared for a conference and showed up as part of the proceedings?

Moreover, when I just read the abstract, [I saw that] this paper does not fall within the standard line of literature on this issue. [There have] been a long line of papers in lots of different areas related to extractive industries that talk about the “resource curse.” What this paper attempted to do was turn this on its head and say that the natural resource curse is reversed. I’m not an expert science writer, but it seems to me that, while journalists often look for the outlier — you know, “man bites dog,” there’s news — when we see an academic paper reversing what has been the line of thinking in other research, we ought to ask a lot more questions: How did you get to that point? And where did this come from? There was the issue with the funding being from ARIES, and they did not do a very good job of explaining to readers what ARIES is and what it meant that the paper didn’t go through their standard refereeing process.

JR: What should people know about the research on the coal industry right now — the stuff you think is pretty credible? What are some findings and insights that are informing your reporting and understanding?

mountaintop-miningKen Ward Jr.: There’s obviously been a lot of work going back a fair amount of time about mountain-top removal and its environmental impacts. There’s very clear science showing impacts to aquatic life…. There was just a new paper that came out by some folks at EPA and the USGS and West Virginia University that was talking about terrestrial impacts, about impacts on forests and wildlife and topography and, oddly enough, on human beings. What it was saying was that because the Clean Water Act provides a kind of regulatory hook for EPA, much of the research is focused on water-quality impacts. And this paper was saying — it was in a journal called Bioscience — that there needs to be a lot more research about these other terrestrial impacts that aren’t as well understood. I think that that’s an interesting part of this. Michael Hendryx at West Virginia University has been kind of the leader in doing research about human health effects, and he’s taken a lot of criticism for that, and kind of been in the industry’s bull’s-eye. They’ve been really trying to discredit him, but his work has now expanded. There are also researchers in Kentucky who have done similar studies.

The U.S. Geological Survey is doing some follow-up, doing actual air monitoring and looking at the ultra-fine particulates from the blasting and the dust from these operations. They’ve presented some of that work at conferences and are getting ready to publish some it. That’s very important work, very interesting stuff. With the ARIES group — it’s run out of Virginia Tech, but they have a number of other universities involved — much of their focus is on trying to get research that attacks EPA’s proposal concerning limiting conductivity downstream in these mining operations. Their focus has really been on EPA’s water-quality guidance, trying to say that the EPA’s numbers are wrong.

But [ARIES] has got some other stuff that’s fascinating, where mining engineers are looking at these large-scale surface mines and saying, “We’re doing almost nothing to control the dust.” There are lots of things they can do. Look at what they’re doing in Australia, and even in Wyoming. But in Appalachia none of these dust-control measures are being applied and they could be. So I think that that’s a really interesting kind of angle for journalists because ARIES says, “Our role is to make this process better.” It’s a good story to go and ask the mining operations, “Here are some studies that you funded that show you can control the dust better. Are you going to adopt these proposals?” And I think those are really interesting areas.

JR: Natural gas is booming. There’s a sense in America right now, a media narrative, too, that is curving toward “This is the twilight of coal. Natural gas boom, rah-rah.” What should Americans and other reporters out there know about this? Is this truly the “twilight of coal”?

Ken Ward Jr.: I’m certainly not an expert on some of the international issues. But it’s pretty obvious that, if you look at what’s happening, the coal market for sales to power plants in the United States is declining, especially from Central Appalachia. Northern Appalachia maybe will be a little better off. But coal production here is going to decline in terms of coal that’s sold to power plants. It’s a little unclear about the [metallurgical] coal market, steelmaking coal, and where that’s going to go. I don’t think that’s completely shaken out yet. But a lot of these companies that own vast coal resources in the United States or have leases on government-owned coal want to mine this coal and sell it to someplace else. And there’s a vibrant debate growing in the Pacific Northwest about that, and it really needs to be a national debate about whether or not that is good for the planet, to keep burning all of that coal.

There’s kind of another part of this that gets short shrift: My good friends at NPR have come in and done stories — and everyone else [in the news media] comes in and does one of these — saying, “It’s the twilight of the coal industry.” They talk to some retired miners and local officials who lament this, and those sorts of things. But very seldom do those people ask, “What are you doing to try to diversify your economy in that area? And what’s the federal government doing to help you diversify your economy in that area?”

There’s a very little-noticed but important part of EPA’s initial statement when they announced in 2009 that they were going to start cracking down on mountain-top removal. One of the things that Administrator Jackson said in her initial press release [was that] the full force of the federal government is going to come in and focus on helping communities where coal is on the decline to diversify. Well, where are they and what have they been doing in that regard? You see all of these national stories [that] focus on this folksy stuff about the atmosphere in the mining communities. But none of them go and ask the White House press secretary, “What are you all doing for McDowell County, West Virginia? What are you doing to help the people in McDowell County who are trying to find ways for a future if coal is on the decline? What are you doing to help them?” Nobody asks those questions.

JR: You’re also dealing with some fracking issues, because the Marcellus Shale — where there are a lot of natural gas deposits — extends down there. Where does the fracking issue stand in your region of Appalachia?

Fracking_WikipediaKen Ward Jr.: In West Virginia a lot of that is going on in the northern part of the state, the northern panhandle, the area that’s closer to western Pennsylvania. There’s a lot of talk about natural gas as a “bridge fuel.” And people are wondering if natural gas is going to squeeze renewables out and slow down the move to renewables to deal with climate change. It’s kind of an interesting parallel, because if it weren’t for the fracking boom in the northern part of West Virginia, I think the dialogue about diversifying our economy beyond extractive energies would be a lot further along in West Virginia. But what’s happened is that the political leadership can kind of point to, “Look how great things are going with the natural gas boom. This is our future.” Just as talking about natural gas as a bridge fuel has the potential to slow down the move to renewables, I think that the boom in natural gas here is slowing down talk about diversifying the economy.

JR: What’s your understanding of the research on fracking? We’ve been trying to round up material on the health effects and whatnot, but what’s your general understanding?

Ken Ward Jr.: One of the things I’ve been trying to understand a little more clearly is what the state of the science is on greenhouse gas emissions from fracking, methane leakage. There was just a big AP story out earlier this week that the EPA reduced its estimate of methane leakage from natural gas pretty significantly. But those numbers haven’t been peer-reviewed yet, and there’s a lot of new science coming out about that over the next few months. It will be interesting to see where that comes out. There was just a new paper that came out from the School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh, where they interviewed people who lived in western Pennsylvania, at Marcellus Shale development sites, and asked if they were concerned about the effect on their health. The researchers were trying to unpack what folks are concerned about, what health effects are they worried about, and those sorts of things. The science on those sort of health effects is still pretty young, and there’s a lot left to be looked at.

JR: When you talk to people on the ground in Appalachia — regular citizens — about the energy and economic future, what are their concerns? Are they more worried about jobs than they are getting cancer ten years from now?

Ken Ward Jr.: I would say a couple of things about that. One, I try to never presume to generalize about how a broad set of people where I live are feeling, and think frankly that that’s one of gigantic mistakes that journalists make. While there perhaps is certain value in trying to spend time talking to people, you also need to be a little more scientific and take a look, for instance, at public opinion polls. Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster and a fairly well-respected one, I think — I don’t think anybody thinks she cooks the books — did a poll about coal-mining issues in Appalachia. She found some pretty straightforward interesting things: People don’t really like the mountains getting blown up. People don’t really like coal miners getting blown up. And they think the government should do things to stop those things from happening, or reduce the likelihood that they will happen. But people also don’t like to see their neighbors out of work. I mean, it ain’t rocket science.

What I think journalists should spend more time doing is trying not just depict their communities but to give them facts and knowledge and science and information that helps people understand the impacts of the choices that they make about what they’re going to do and who they’re going to vote for, and what activities are they going to support and what activities they’re not going to allow. And I think that’s a much more valuable thing.


Keywords: coal, research chat

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