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Cancer in coal country: study links health of streams with health of people

Melissa Waage

Posted April 21, 2010

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new study from Virginia Tech and WVU researchers finds a connection between the ecological health of Appalachian streams and cancer deaths in the region.  (Hat tip to Ken Ward, Jr. at the Charleston Gazette.)

Published in the journal EcoHealth this month, the first-of-its kind study analyzed relationships between a measure of stream health based on the presence and distribution of small freshwater creatures, cancer mortality rates, and factors such as poverty and smoking.  They found:

  • A relationship between stream health and cancer rates (one that was not explainable by other factors related to cancer in the region like smoking, poverty, and urbanization) 
  • A significant association between coal mining, poor stream health, and higher cancer mortality
  • Cancer clusters corresponding to areas of high coal mining intensity.

These findings are especially interesting since they come on the heels of the new EPA guidance that explicitly sets stream health, in terms of streams' ability to support aquatic life, as the standard to uphold when considering mountaintop removal permit applications.

The coal industry and its friends have made much of the notion that the presence of mayfly larvae can indicate whether water quality has been affected by mining.  But the science shows that they and other benthic macroinvertebrates (or "teeny creek critters" as I prefer to call them) have a lot to say not only about stream health, but about protecting public health in coal country.

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Lee TruittApr 28 2010 11:35 AM

I urge the reader of this article to type Brent Constantz or Calera Corp. on the net.
The technology does exist to fit coal plants with carbon neutralization equipment which will capture carbon dioxide and other pollutants with about a 90% effectiveness.

Melissa WaageApr 28 2010 04:11 PM

Hi Lee,

This study focused on human and ecosystem health impacts of the mountaintop removal coal mining process (rather than coal burning, which, as you suggest, comes with its own set of problems).

Mountaintop removal mining pollutes streams with dangerous heavy metals and other toxins. For example, an EPA report released last month looked at water quality data for 17 sites downstream from MTR operations in West Virginia and Kentucky. Fourteen of them exceeded federal standards for toxins such as arsenic, lead, mercury, and chromium. Six of nine West Virginia sites tested above safe levels for toxins and all eight Kentucky sites exceeded that level, with two sites registering extremely high readings.

MTR also damages stream ecosystems by simply obliterating them; nearly 2000 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried in the last 20 years by MTR waste.

So, unfortunately, regardless of what happens to the carbon produced when the coal is burned, people in MTR-affected areas are looking at threats to their health.

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