The region just lost a powerhouse of environmental science and advocacy with the death of professor Benjamin Stout. Stout’s work as an educator, an expert witness in the courtroom, as well as his work empowering citizens with science, made long-term impacts regionally and nationally.
Stout was a Wheeling resident and, for the past 26 years, a biology professor at Wheeling Jesuit University. He was a stream ecologist who dedicated his life to science, nature, and above all, community. Ben died of cancer Aug. 3 at his home in Wheeling, surrounded by his family. He was 60.
Stout revealed some of his deepest convictions related to coal mining practices, a topic especially important to him, in a 2008 documentary called Burning the Future: Coal in America.
“When I look at a mountaintop removal site, valley fills,” he said, “I just look at that as a place on Earth whose value was among the best of all places on Earth diminished to among the least of all places on Earth.”
Stout spent a large part of his career studying impacts of surface mining on watersheds and nearby communities. He frequently monitored waters surrounding ponds built to hold coal mining waste — slurry impoundments. As coal companies complied with rules to limit pollution from power plants, Stout found more of those pollutants instead wound up in the ponds.
“The Clean Water Act was the reason slurry impoundments were initially created in order to contain the black water that’s left over from the coal cleaning process,” Stout explained in the film. “Then along comes the Clean Air Act and the irony is now we need to remove even more impurities from the coal, like the heavy metals.” He went on to explain that contaminants in the air have mostly been transferred to water, along with increasingly harsh chemicals used to pull the impurities from coal.
The Expert Witness
Stout was often called as an expert witness in court cases surrounding watershed impairment. Attorney Joe Lovett recalled working with him during a landmark case in the late 1990s.
“It was a case that we brought before Judge Hayden— a federal judge at the time—to seek to stop mountaintop removal in the state,” Lovett said. He recalled the centerpiece of the case was the impacts of surface mining and resulting valley filling practices on surrounding aquatic life. Stout played a key role.
During the trial, on a snowy February day, Stout guided Judge Hayden through a stream slated to be buried, and Stout did what he loved most: he waded through the stream finding insects.
“I think the judge appreciated that because he was a fisher, and those insects, mayflies and so forth with a very kinds of insects that fly fishers use all the time,” Lovett said. “I think the judge really learned from Ben, and I think that was crucial in winning that case.”
For the first time ever, a judge issued an injunction against a mountaintop removal operation, halting one of the largest ever proposed mountaintop removal operations, Spruce Mine No. .1. Necessary mining approval for Spruce 1 has been hung up in court ever since.
“The courts have this fiction that experts are somehow neutral, like machines. And Ben refused to play along with that,” Lovett said. He said Stout’s outspoken nature would sometimes create problems for him. He said, nevertheless, he admired Stout’s integrity.
“Ben not only as an expert, but as a human being and somebody committed to protecting the natural world really taught all of us how to be good advocates and reminded us why we do what we do.”
The Community Advocate
Stout spoke confidently with judges, lawyers and politicians, but he could also talk just as easily with anyone else.
Stout’s friend and colleague at Jesuit, Mary Ellen Cassidy, worked with him for years studying impacts of slurry impoundments on well water of residents in southern West Virginia. She remembers him as personable and disarming, traits that helped him to connect with even the most isolated community members who were living with polluted water wells.
“We would end up sitting down at [rural residents’] tables and talking just about everything,” Cassidy recalled with a laugh. “He had this kind, open spirit, and that's who he was. He was very authentic. And people sensed that right away.”
Cassidy said his ability to connect with people and gather and provide valuable, valid research, made it possible to empower communities to affect change. His obituary notes how his work in communities, “led to 500 West Virginia families being connected to a municipal water supply at Williamson.”
Stout was resourceful and respected by his peers. Standing next to the Monongalia River in Morgantown, Paul Ziemkiewicz, reflected on how waters like these, “benefited mightily from water improvement efforts over the years and to a large extent thanks to Ben's contribution of improving our water and making places like this an asset to the community rather than what it was 30 years ago, which was kind of a dump.”
“Ben's integrity as a scientist was always first and foremost,” said Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute at West Virginia University. He worked alongside Stout and other scientists in the wake of a major fish kill on Dunkard Creek, and the horizontal gas drilling boom in 2009 to create the 3 Rivers QUEST program.
“We all compared notes, we all monitored the river using the same protocols and shared our data and as a consequence, we let it be known to the whole world that they were being watched.”
Stout’s work was also a source of inspiration to his students at Wheeling Jesuit University.
“You couldn't help but just want to follow in his footsteps,” former student Jacob Keeny said.
Keeny remembers how Stout turned him on to stream ecology soon after he started at Jesuit in 2011. Keeny said he was inspired by Stout’s unquestionable passion for community service.
“He wanted his students to respect the community first and understand science second. If you couldn't
connect the two, you were hard pressed to get a good grade in his class,” he recalled. “It was about how well you understood what was going on, and how you could solve problems to fix crises that people were going through.”
Jacob remembers his professor would jump at any chance to work with a community in crisis, and that he’d always take students along with him. For Jacob, that meant getting involved during a major chemical spill in Charleston in 2014 that left 300,000 people without water for days.
“I got a call from him middle of the afternoon during a snowstorm, and he said, ‘Hey, we're going to be working on this Elk River spill, you want to you want to join me?’ I said, ‘Sure , why not?’”
Stout’s expertise in water testing and innovative problem solving proved to be a value contribution.
“There weren't a whole lot of press releases explaining what [MCHM] was,” Keeny said. “No studies on it saying what it would do to human health. Ben, he's a he's a freshwater stream ecologist. And so he took the approach of seeing what it does to the bugs in the river first.”
Stout was eventually hired by a law firm that brought a class action suit over the spill. Because human health studies can take decades to provide conclusive results, Stout and Keeny turned to insect indicator species in streams. They conducted toxicity tests to gauge the potential health effects of MCHM. Exposure to even very low concentrations of the chemical MCHM turned out to be fatal for the insects.
“And I believe that information that ended up being used in the class action lawsuit and years later, they’ve finally settled that suit. And I think people are starting to get a little bit of justice.”