I wrote a slightly snotty post about West Virginia recently, in response to Gov. Joe Manchin making coal the state rock. The point was that dependence on coal has produced more misery than benefit for West Virginians — nothing to celebrate.

As it happens, at a recent event I had the opportunity to ask Manchin about it, and to debate it with several people afterward. All that was off the record … but basically the argument came down to: coal has meant jobs, and anyway, what’s the alternative?

Enter empirical data. Ken Ward Jr. reports:

Coal mining costs Appalachians five times more in early deaths as the industry provides to the region in jobs, taxes and other economic benefits, according to a groundbreaking new study co-authored by a West Virginia University researcher.

The peer-reviewed paper, “Mortality in Appalachian Coal Mining Regions: The Value of Statistical Life Lost,” by Michael Hendryx of West Virginia University and Melissa Ahern of Washington State University, appears in the latest issue of Public Health Reports.

On Hendryx’s past work:

Previous papers, also published in peer-reviewed journals, found that residents of coal-producing counties are more likely to suffer from chronic heart, lung and kidney diseases and more likely to be hospitalized for certain health problems that are connected to coal pollution. Hendryx has also reported that coal county residents are more likely to contract lung cancer and generally suffer from excess numbers of premature deaths. In each of his studies, Hendryx has tried to weed out other possible factors — such as smoking and diet — to pinpoint coal’s possible role in these public health problems.

Lots more on Ward’s great blog, Coal Tattoo.

Here’s the conclusion of the paper:

In response to this and other research showing the disadvantages of poor economic diversification, it seems prudent to examine how more diverse employment opportunities for the region could be developed as a means to reduce socio-economic and environmental disparities and thereby improve public health.

Potential alternative employment opportunities include development of renewable energy from wind, solar, biofuels, geothermal, or hydropower sources; sustainable timber; small-scale agriculture; outdoor or culturally oriented tourism; technology; and ecosystem restoration.

The need to develop alternative economies becomes even more important when we realize that coal reserves throughout most of Appalachia are projected to peak and then enter permanent decline in about 20 years.

Economies tied exclusively to single natural resources tend not to fare well. Wiser West Virginia leaders would long ago have recognized the need to economically diversify. But they didn’t. Will Manchin? He argues persuasively that he’s taking some steps in that direction, but in practice he continues to make it his top priority to defend the coal industry from any disturbance. West Virginians deserve better — they deserve choices.