New WVU-Va Tech study links water quality and cancer deaths in West Virginia coalfields

April 21, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.


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 (Subscription required), 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.

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.”

26 Responses to “New WVU-Va Tech study links water quality and cancer deaths in West Virginia coalfields”

  1. clay ton says:

    The creeks around the mines had no living fish in the 1950’s. My father, a WV miner with a 4th grade education knew the water was poisoned and told me so.

    “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.”

    Now that science has weighed in will it be another 60 or 100 years before the ‘bright lights’ in Charleston and Washington DC act like leaders and do something to protect those human beings condemned to a life in the coal region?

    Ho-hum, it’s Westvirginiastan…sipping imported spring water in the capital, business as usual. Drive on.

  2. rhmooney3 says:

    Try this link which has the abstract and a free preview of the first page of the article:

    There’s also this poster presentation at the
    Center for Biodiversity and Conservation
    Fourteenth Annual Spring Symposium
    Thursday and Friday, April 2 and 3, 2009

    HITT, NATHANIEL; Michael Hendryx


    Assessments of ecological integrity are commonplace for biological conservation, but their role for public health remains largely unexplored. We tested the prediction that human cancer mortality rates would be negatively related to the ecological integrity of streams in West Virginia. We characterized ecological integrity using an index of benthic macroinvertebrate community structure (West Virginia Department of Environmental Quality data) and we used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to quantify age-adjusted human cancer mortality rates. Ecological integrity was negatively related to total cancer mortality (p < 0.01). We detected significant variation among cancer types: respiratory, digestive, urinary, and breast cancer mortality rates were related to ecological integrity but genital and oral cancers were not. Smoking rates were also related to cancer, but did not account for the observed effects of ecological integrity. However, an index of coal mining intensity was positively related to cancer mortality (p < 0.01) and negatively related to ecological integrity (p < 0.001). Spatial analyses also revealed cancer clusters that corresponded to areas of low ecological integrity and high coal mining intensity. Our results demonstrate significant linkages between ecological integrity and cancer in West Virginia, and suggest important effects of coal mining on ecological and human communities. We conclude that assessments of ecological integrity can be highly relevant for public health and that stream biota may serve as sentinels in this regard.

  3. rhmooney3 says:

    Than Hitt – – does share online versions of his publications here although only through 2008:

  4. Josh says:

    I think it is time for a class-action lawsuit.

  5. rhmooney3 says:


    So we should sue ourselves for what we’ve done — remember that all costs come back to us or, more so to our offspring — since the consumers/taxpayers, one way or another.

    Always look in a mirror first when blaming someone.

  6. Josh says:

    I tend to agree rhmooney3. It is the same idea the medical care cost more because doctors have to carry malpractice insurance to fend off legal expenses. However, there are responsible ways to do things and when you face the facts, coal mining in WV has been less than such. Lack of responsibility to residents and the environment have allowed the margins that have made shareholders of massive energy companies wealthy.

    Sure, I blame myself as part of the problem for using electricity, but if I had the option to pay more for energy from a non-coal source, I would. I know suing coal companies will make coal electricity cost more, but I don’t care. The extra expense I would incur has already been passed to our offspring in the form of unclean, cancer-causing water, uninhabitable land for centuries to come, and paying for medical care for the people drinking the water out of these streams. The only folks who haven’t incurred expense in this whole mess are the shareholders and executives who profited from the destruction of WV and her people.

  7. I’m so glad someone in the field of science has discovered this – maybe it will have an impact.

    For years everytime it rained in my coalmining town, the water ran brown – we still had to use it. The coffee tasted pretty awful with that bad water. The only thing that made it drinkable – the coffee and the water were both the same color of brown, and your white clothes were no longer white.

    Why is it – no one wants to hear from the people who actually live in this stuff (I’m not talking about me) but all the people who no longer even have water they can use for anything except for what they buy due to irresponsible coal mining practices.

    Maybe now that a scientific study has determined the water is not safe or healthy, politicians will take a look — all the dead fish didn’t seem to cause any alarm.

  8. rhmooney3 says:

    For absolutely sure, coalfield residents bear the un-ending burden of our coporate-welfare society.

    The costs of coal don’t show up in the electric bills; residents are not compesated for their many loses…and deaths.

    Many may cheer the demise of coal, but that will be even more costly to the coalfield residents.

    While coking coal prices are now skyrocketing, in large part due to the horrific tradegy in one of its best mines, thermal coal is dropping even more:

    Always be careful in what you seek — cures can be much worse than the problems: (4:23 minutes)

  9. Shelby says:

    A lot of coal mines were started during ww1 in southern WV.They are all gone now.Upper Tug river now supports aquatic life well. What happened during those 90 odd years is anyones guess ; but its believed the mine poisons ran their course, and now the streams are clean again To me, it just proves mine water will eventually become poison free in a lifetime, providing no new sources are added on

  10. Andrew says:


    I see what you say about suing ourselves, but you wouldn’t be suing for money- you’d be suing to make sure the pollution stops. This has been done a large number of times for other water sources. Look up the River Keepers to see how it’s done. They are an organization that monitors waterways and sues to keep organizations from polluting.

  11. JM2 says:

    I wonder how many open untreated sewage discharges are located in the streams used in this study. I am sure that untreated sewage would have more of an impact on public health around these streams, certainly more than any other activities located nearby. If you look at the TMDLs (total maximum daily loads) conducted in the early 2000’s by the WVDEP, when houses where located near streams in most cases that stream became fecally impaired down stream of where the houses where located according to the TMDL studies. Why doesn’t any one look at that problem?

  12. Vernon says:

    Without having read the study, I can’t say for sure, but knowing Hitt and Hendryx I’m sure their methodology took that into account. I would trust this study far more than the WVDEP’s TMDLs, which give outdated data as early as page 3 for the Coal River watershed. They used early-mid 90’s satellite data to state that 3% of the land in the CR watershed was “mined/barren,” but if you add the more recent data from around 2002 it’s more like 14%. So the introduction gives the rosy 3% figure, while you have to dig in the appendices and do the math for the 14% figure. I think JM2’s comments are an effort to divert attention away from the majority culprit. And water treatment of river-sourced municipal water can most likely treat for fecal coliform than for dissolved heavy metals and the many other things coal companies put in the water–things more linked to cancer than fecal coliform is.

  13. cheryl cornette says:

    Yes! As a child growing up in Boone county, I loved the Pond Fork Branch of the Little Coal. My poor mother was horrified that we would sneak away and swim there.
    In the valley by the railroad tracks, the air was thick with coal dust. All downstream from the mines, the mud holes were orange, as were the smaller rills and creeks. That bright orange collected in eddies held by stones and moss, or whatever flotsam nature had gathered there to hold those heavy parts that are not water. Unnatural swirls oily and shiny. Always looked like cheap carnival glass in the bright sunlight. As for the larger streams, brown in the middle, black and sludgy on the banks was the norm. I have my own coal tattoo from bustin’ my lip on that river bank. No amount of Dr. Scott’s scrubbing with a brush before stitching could remove that stain.
    As an adult, I have wondered at the early demise of so many childhood friends who grew up there and never set foot in a coal mine. Many illnesses related to environmental poisons run rampant in those valleys.
    And, some say we were/are to blame? The poor and marginalized people who live on small incomes in fear of the next necessary strike or cave in, or shut down, or now, non-union company which would further stress the boundaries of just in time bill paying. We are responsible for industry standards not being monitored, regulated and enforced?

    Yes, we knew it. But, who heard our small voices then?

    Now, I live in a the Northeast, having left so young to find some life that did not include so much darkness. I use the available alternative energy source that is offered to me with gratitude. Still, it does nothing to soothe my losses. I hoped to one day retire in that grand beauty that once was West Virginia.
    It no longer exists.

    There has been a conspiracy of silence and now, finally, many are speaking. I hope it becomes a very loud scream.

  14. Thomas Rodd says:

    The streams most adversely affected by drainage from mined areas are in Northern West Virginia, where in some areas, sulfur-containing sandstones in the mine rubble (strip mines and abandoned deep mines) create sulfuric-acid laden groundwater drainage that dissolves iron, aluminum, and other minerals in the rubble, and the groundwater then drains into streams and rivers. Once the acid-producing reaction gets going in the rubble it will continue to pollute the groundwater that contacts it for centuries.

    The acidity and the dissolved minerals in the affected water are toxic to aquatic organisms. The bright orange color in the photo is iron that has precipitated out of the water as its ph rises when it meets less polluted water, and it can’t hold the minerals in solution. At least this is the way I learned it. (I’ve see acid mine drainage the color of milk, where there was a lot of dissolved aluminum precipitating, and not enough iron to mask it.)

    I wish this study was fully available, because there are such big differences in the groundwater and stream toxicity coming from Northern and Southern West Virginia mine rubble, that it is hard to imagine that mine drainage-affected streams in the two regions are similarly contaminated/lifeless. So it would be interesting to see what kind of data they used to evaluate stream integrity.

  15. thelma says:

    I also would like to see the comparison of the streams in the north to the south. The north has had orange streams that I recall back in 1972. Cows grazed right along those streams…WV seems to have a lot of cancer programs in hospitals. Everyone has cancer.The 1970’s, drinking water from the Ohio river had chemical companies and coal dumping into it. A coal miner friend of mine, who worked on barges said you should see the malformed fish in the river….This is not news to me. Common sense…

  16. bugman160 says:


    I realize that the Coal TMDL uses Mid-90s Land Use Data, but the 2002 data (published in 2007) wasn’t exactly ready when the TMDL was developed and published in 2006. Also, that early section you refer to was just an orienting overview of the watershed and by stating it was 1990s data explained to the reader the limitation of the data. What you found in the appendix, was it an attempt to use other data to get a more current handle of what was mined/barren?

    And the TMDLs done by WVDEP are far superior to the ones done by EPA before the DEP took over development.

    And I do think that the untreated sewage JM2 brings up is a good point, in addition to the mining pollutants. Untreated sewage is not just about Fecal coliforms. Look at all of the crap people flush down their toilets. A lot of nasty stuff in there that cannot be treated for or removed with the currently installed technology based treatment methods.

  17. Jason Robinson says:

    Tom they used macroinvertebrate assemblage data. Bugs are probably affected by either but are certainly more affected by acid rather than alkaline mine drainages.

    One thing this study can’t do is explicitly and mechanistically tie stream water quality to public health. “Public health” in this case is a constellation of cancer mortality, but it could be lots of other things and the factors affecting water quality may affect the individual or even the different cancers in different ways. The old saw “correlation is not causation”… it’s not enough to suggest any actual physical pathways or patterns of exposure.

    The fact that such strong relationships exist is and should be enough. The discussion about straight pipes will always crop up but is a red herring. Grey water is much less carcinogenic than heavy metals and anything blowing or flowing off of a coal mine, and there are many other areas of the country with similar wastewater control uses for control comparisons. So those data are available for any skeptics or the industry to use to knock this down, but don’t hold your breath.

    I betcha Than will shoot you a copy if you email him.

  18. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Thanks for all the comments … especially nice to see comments from our friend Tom Rodd. I appreciate Tom’s comments on the difference between streams and groundwater and mining impacts in the north vs. south of West Virginia. But I’m not sure there’s a full appreciation there for the impact of selenium and conductivity.

    One note: I’m sorry I wasn’t able to post the entire study, but it is copyrighted material. I’ve asked the authors to see if the journal would allow me to post it or at least a link to the whole thing (for free) … if they approve it, I’ll get it posted ASAP.

    A few things I can tell you, and I apologize for not providing more detail in my original post or the print story. But things are pretty busy right now on other fronts, unfortunately.

    First, as a measure of “ecological integrity” the study used the West Virginia Stream Condition Index (SCI) … Folks who aren’t familiar with that can check it out here:

    Next, the public health measure that was used was cancer mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control. The used county-level, age-adjusted total cancer mortality rates per 100,000 people for the combined years 1979-2005.

    The study also used an area-adjusted measure of coal production (1,000 tons per square km) with data from the West Virginia Geologic and Economic Survey. They also developed a new “coal mining index” to characterize the associated impacts of mining (processing, slurry injection, etc.) based on permit data and Census data.

    Again, if I’m able, I’ll try to post the study. But it should be available from any university library. Ken.

  19. EB says:

    I wonder if this study took into consideration the amount of tobacco use in these areas?

  20. Vernon says:

    EB, I’m sure that, like Hendryx’s previous studies, other factors were considered. The great thing about peer-reviewed studies is that other experts scrutinize the methodology and conclusions before it’s published, and something as obvious as tobacco usage would raise red flags if not considered.
    Bugman, the appendices to the TMDLs were specific to Coal River sub-watersheds. The watershed overview/introduction did not clearly state the age and limitation of the data. Instead, it comes across as current and accurate, and was not updated between draft (for public comment) and final versions. I disagree that the more current data wasn’t ready yet. If I could spend 10 minutes adding the numbers, why couldn’t the DEP? It seemed like they were married to the old data.

  21. g.e. morris says:

    As the son of a coal miner, I loved my upbringing in W.Va. But, as a daddy, I knew that I did not want to raise my children around Charleston. Every company that makes chemicals seem to have a manufacturing plant there along the banks of the Kanawha. This is smart business for them and the local economy but, a death sentence at an early age for the inhabitants of the beautiful Kanawha Valley. My dad died of Black Lung/lung cancer/silicosis far too young as, I’m sure is too common a story. I commend “Tech” for their study. Which I have hoped for, lo these many years. I see the corporations/mine owners as uncaring profit takers, sucking the lifeblood from desperate people who become one-eyed jacks for survival. They support the polluters for survivals sake. And, they stay desperate because it’s a dead-end career. Pun Intended.

  22. Tom Rodd says:

    A DNR fish biologist told me that large-scale acid mine drainage neutralization/”treatment” is all that is keeping fish populations alive in a number of West Virginia watersheds. What happens if that ever stops? And, let’s not forget that most West Virginia streams are under an “advisory” for mercury contamination of fish; not to mention “intersex” fish, causation still uncertain, all along the Potomac. What a mess!

  23. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Yes, the study took that into account and concluded:

    “Smoking, poverty, and urbanization were important predictors of cancer mortality, but did not account for the significant association between ecological integrity and public health.”

    And as Dr. Hendryx said in our print edition story:

    “We found that cancer rates are linked to environmental quality even after accounting for other major risks such as smoking.”


  24. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Hey folks … here’s a link where you can read the paper:


  25. bugman160 says:

    “The GAP database for West Virginia was derived from
    satellite imagery taken during the early 1990s,” What more do you need than that? If you cannot extrapolate that the data is at least 10 years old from that statement (1995 to September 2006-the date of the final TMDL document) then I don’t know what more you would want.

    And you disagree that the more current data wasn’t available yet? The data was released in April 2007. You can also see in the latest TMDL for the Dunkard that the 2001 data was used.

  26. Colleen says:

    I always wondered why the creek running near my home to the Ohio River ran orange. Makes sense now. I didn’t realize that there was any mining taking place upstream.

    This must have been on top of Cherry Hill Road where the hillsides would be cut out in large strips.

    I too am missing my home state from far away. I read where WV has the largest amount of out of state residents returning to be buried.

    I have thought about returning later in life to live out my later years in serenity and good community. I hope as I age, WV will return to it’s roots and be able to grow even more beautiful.

    Here’s to leaders making decisions to act right towards the communities affected and to the companies to take responsibility for the consequences of their practices.

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