CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginians who live near streams polluted by coal mining are more likely to die of cancer, according to a first-of-its kind study published by researchers at West Virginia University and Virginia Tech.
The study provides the first peer-reviewed look at the relationship between the biological health of Appalachian streams and public health of coalfield residents.
Published in the scientific journal EcoHealth, the paper compares cancer death rates to population figures, coal production figures and a new index of how far people live to various types of coal-mining operations.
"We've known for years that stream organisms can be sentinels of environmental quality," said study co-author Nathaniel Hitt, a Virginia Tech stream ecologist who now works for the U.S. Geological Survey. "What we have now shown is that these organisms are also indicators of public health."
Hitt wrote the paper with Michael Hendryx, a WVU epidemiologist who has published a series of other scientific articles that linked mining to poor public health and found coal costs Appalachian more in premature deaths that the industry provides in economic benefits.
"We found that cancer rates are linked to environmental quality even after accounting for other major risks such as smoking," Hendryx said. "Furthermore, we saw that the most impaired streams were in close proximity to coal surface mines. This adds to the body of evidence that coal mining is harmful to ecosystems and human health."
The paper comes as the Obama administration continues a crackdown on mountaintop removal mining, a move industry officials say would harm the region's economy and is based on faulty arguments that mining damages the environment.
Some coal industry officials have been especially critical of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to tighten water quality guidelines for mining, saying it amounts to putting the health of mayflies ahead of jobs.
But the new paper adds to what other scientists say is the growing evidence not only that mining damages forests and streams, but also that it threatens public health across the Appalachian coalfields.
"Regulation of coal mining is often portrayed as a choice between 'mayflies and miners'," said Emily Bernhardt, a Duke University biologist who has researched mining issues and testified on behalf of citizen groups. "However, this study shows how streams are important for the health and welfare of miners and their communities."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.