By Brian Sewell
Dr. Ben Stout, a stream ecologist and professor of biology at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia, is as at home in nearby communities as he is in the classroom. For more than 20 years, he has conducted his research outside of the lab and in local communities, testing water, listening to residents’ concerns, and publishing and testifying on his findings.
Stout says his responsibility to residents of Appalachia began in 1990, when he testified in the “first big mountaintop removal case” held in a federal court in Charleston, W.Va. There, he spoke about the impact of valley fills on stream health, and catalyzed an ongoing national debate about the tenets of the Clean Water Act that apply to mountaintop removal coal mining.
“That was earth-shaking to me,” Stout says. “Up to that point I really did not know anything about mountaintop removal and I couldn’t believe that people denied these headwater streams existed or that they were important. That changed my career path … from then on I’ve always done applied stuff, community-based participatory research. I work for the citizens.”
In West Virginia and across Appalachia, Stout has become well known for his research. In 2004, he met with residents in Mingo County, W.Va., who claimed their water was contaminated by the coal industry’s practice of injecting slurry from coal processing plants underground. The report Stout went on to write found that, for many families, drinking or even bathing in their tap water could present a “chronic health hazard.” Nearly 700 impacted Mingo County residents sued Massey Energy over the contamination — Massey eventually settled out of court with the residents for $35 million.
Keeping with his commitment to conduct community-based research, Stout and several students are currently working in western Pennsylvania, interpreting complex pre-drilling water reports. In exchange, residents can anonymously add information about their water quality to a database of pre-drilling water quality for the region. Stout says that data could allow researchers to paint a better picture of what well and stream water quality were like before drilling and more accurately assess contamination problems when they do occur.
“That is my role,” Stout says, “to make sure people have good information and to fight off disinformation, and we get plenty of that.”