Gov. Tom Wolf asked to investigate possible link between Pa. fracking, childhood cancers by Don Hopey and Dave Templeton, June 17, 2019, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
More than 100 organizations and 800 individuals have signed a public letter to Gov. Tom Wolf calling on him to direct the state Department of Health to investigate potential links between shale gas development and a proliferation of childhood cancers.
The letter, which environmental groups plan to deliver to the governor and state Health Department Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine via email Monday, and hand deliver during a demonstration in Harrisburg Wednesday, also requests that all new shale gas permitting be suspended until the health investigation can demonstrate the cancers are not linked to shale gas drilling and fracking operations.
“This is a public health crisis that requires immediate and significant action,” according to the text of the four-page letter. Emily Wurth helped lead the letter writing effort and said the broad-based support for examination of health impacts of shale gas development was prompted by the ongoing Pittsburgh Post-Gazette series “Human toll: Risk and exposure in the gas lands.”
Stories in the Post-Gazette series document up to 67 cases of childhood and young adult cancers in Washington, Greene, Fayette and Westmoreland counties where shale gas operations are active. The total includes 27 cases of Ewing sarcoma, a rare bone cancer.
“The letter references the investigative reporting and scientific evidence that strongly suggests a link between childhood cancers and shale gas operations,” said Ms. Wurth, who is organizing co-director of Food & Water Watch and Food & Water Action. “We organized this strong response in just a couple of weeks from the about 125 organizations and even more individuals who are concerned about what they’ve read.”
A state health department review of 12 Ewing sarcoma cases in Westmoreland County and six in Canon-McMillan School District in Washington County failed to conclude that either met the criteria for designation as a “cancer cluster.” The study only included three of the six Canon-McMillan area cases in the cluster assessment. The shale gas industry has vigorously denied there is any link between human health impacts and the air and water pollutants emitted by its widespread and expanding drilling, fracking, processing and transport operations.
Marcellus Shale Coalition President David Spigelmyer said in written responses to questions: “We are disappointed that some activists choose to sensationalize tragedy, make inflammatory suggestions that run counter to the views of respected medical experts, top environmental and health regulators and decades of scientific data and research.” He said the industry is committed to protecting and enhancing the health and safety of the environment and communities where it operates. [“Committed to” means nothing, notably when promised by the oil and gas industry and or it’s enabling lobby groups]
Raina Ripple, director of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, a Washington County nonprofit that does educational outreach about the health impacts of shale gas drilling, said the multiple childhood cancers focus public concern and present an opportunity to press public officials for answers. “This is a moment in time to raise these concerns about our children’s health and the cancer rate, and we feel the governor would be remiss in not addressing these concerns,” Ms. Ripple said. She said there are still significant questions about what is spiking the cancer rates, and noted multiple factors may be contributing to that problem, including genetics, legacy pollution and radiation sites, lifestyle factors and environmental exposures.
“But what is new in the last five or 10 years that could have triggered this?” Ms. Ripple said. “Many in the community are quick to seize on legacy causes like radioactive waste but something has changed. The indices of childhood cancer are out of whack. And what’s changed, what’s new, is the shale gas industry.”
The letter notes that about 12,000 wells have been drilled and fracked in the four mostly rural southwestern Pennsylvania counties in the last 15 years, bringing in a host of toxic chemicals, many of them known carcinogens, into the mostly rural counties. Many of those chemicals pose a high risk to children and at-risk populations, the letter states.
It also notes there are numerous peer-reviewed public health studies that have found an association between shale gas drilling and fracking and low birth weights in babies, birth defects, asthma and other respiratory problems. Scientific associations don’t prove that those health impacts are linked to shale gas development activities, but they could be, and should be the subject of more scientific study, said Sandra Steingraber, a biologist at Ithaca College and founder of Concerned Health Professionals of NY.
“We may be on the leading edge of what could be a real cancer crisis in the shale gas drilling and fracking industry,” said Ms. Steingraber, noting studies showing high levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, in the urine of gas well workers, and another that found children living within 500 feet of gas wells in Colorado have higher rates of leukemia. The letter to the governor notes a Yale study that identified at least 55 fracking chemicals as known or possible carcinogens and recommends further research into the relationship between shale gas development and the “risk of cancer in general and childhood leukemia in particular.”
“As a biologist, what I see so far is little arrows pointing in a direction; arrows that say, ‘Dig here.’” Ms. Steingraber said. “Based on its air and water emissions, we should look at the role of the drilling and fracking industry,” she said. “Those are reasonable questions to ask.”
Among the organizations signing the letter are Allegheny County Clean Air Now; Climate Reality Project: Pittsburgh & SWPA chapter; Thomas Merton Center EcoJustice Working Group; Green Party of Allegheny County; Allegheny County Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America; Marcellus Outreach Butler; PennEnvironment; Pennsylvania Council of Churches; Physicians for Social Responsibility – Pennsylvania; and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, Beaver County. In addition to Ms. Steingraber, other notable individuals signing the letter include actors Mark Ruffalo and Shailene Woodley, “Gasland” documentary filmmaker Josh Fox, Bill McKibben, founder of the climate change focused 350.org, and state Reps. Chris Rabb (D-Philadelphia) and Rep. Danielle Friel Otten (D-Chester). “We’ve been seeing different challenges to the investment this state has been making in shale gas development and fracking,” said Ms. Otten, whose district doesn’t have drilling but does have pipelines and pumping stations. “It’s beyond time to take a pause, a breath, to ensure that we’re moving Pennsylvania in the right direction and upholding our statutory responsibilities in ensuring public health and safety.”
Cash and Cowardice: Why the Media and Politicians are Ignoring the Growing Child Cancer Cluster in Washington County, PA by Jesse White, February 27, 2019, Goose in the Gallows
Despite a growing rare cancer cluster affecting children in a small community in Washington County, Pennsylvania, few people seem to care, and even fewer people are actively attempting to determine the cause. Why? Because the oil and gas industry, firmly entrenched in the area for over a decade, will do anything to prevent a scientific, objective search for truth.
How do I know? Because the same thing happened seven years ago, albeit on a much smaller scale. Instead of trying to identify the cause of the health concerns, the oil and gas industry intervened and proceeded to take extraordinary steps to collude with corrupt public officials, misdirect the media, and lie to the public about even the most remote possibility that the fracking process could have possibly been to blame. But before we go back and examine what happened in 2012, here are the facts relating to the current health crisis:
Ewing’s Sarcoma: The Canon-McMillan Cancer Cluster
A story appeared on the website of NBC Pittsburgh affiliate WPXI in mid-February titled, “Former Student Diagnosed with Rare Cancer That Killed Classmate.” The focus of the piece was a young man named Mitch Barton who is battling an extremely rare form of cancer called Ewing’s Sarcoma. Impacting primarily children and teenagers, fewer than 200 cases of Ewing’s Sarcoma are reported nationwide per year.
But this isn’t the first case of Ewing’s Sarcoma the communities that comprise the Canon-McMillan school district, located about 30 minutes south of Pittsburgh, have encountered. In 2016, another Canon-Mac student, Luke Blanock, lost a high-profile battle with Ewing’s Sarcoma diagnosed three years earlier.
Luke Blanock married his high school sweetheart prior to succumbing to Ewing’s Sarcoma in 2016. Source: GoFundMe.com
And unfortunately, it looks like Blanock and Barton are not the last cases of Ewing’s Sarcoma the Canon Mac community will be forced to endure. According to the WPXI story as many as eight parents have reached out to the families of both victims because their own children have also been diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma.
The random diagnosis of at least ten children with an extremely rare form of cancer in one school district is statistically impossible. With 200 cases annually among 74 million children nationwide, the odds of contracting Ewing’s Sarcoma are approximately 1 in 370,000. Based on the 2018 enrollment figure of 5,297, and assuming the additional cases of kids with Ewing’s Sarcoma are in the same school district, the odds of a student living in the Canon-McMillan school district is 1 in 530. While my math here is admittedly crude, the existence of a cancer cluster is impossible to ignore.
The next question seems obvious. What’s causing all of these kids to develop Ewing’s Sarcoma? Right now, nobody knows. The cancer is so rare that there is no clear cause, or even contributing factors. But given the proliferation of cases in a concentrated area, there has to be a root cause.
Christine Barton, Matt’s mother, told WPXI that she is concerned about environmental factors, including oil and gas drilling as well as an old uranium dump in the area. “Could it be something environmental? We don’t know. It seems like for the cancer to be so rare, from what they tell us, and when you look at the numbers in our area…it just puts up a red flag.”
“The Most Radioactive Town in America”: A Local History of Uranium Mining
The existence of the uranium dump is hardly a secret. The Standard Chemical Company operated a radium refining mill from 1911 to 1922 in the area, which produced more uranium than all other plants in the world combined; Marie Curie herself visited the plant in 1921. From 1930 to 1942, the company purified Uranium ore. From 1942 to 1957, Vitro Manufacturing Company refined uranium and other rare metals on-site. The government bought this uranium from Vitro and used it in the Manhattan Project.
Marie Curie visits the Standard Chemical Company’s Uranium Plant in 1921. Source: Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania
Under the 1978 Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act of 1978, the mill site and 163 adjacent properties received a $48 million grant to re-mediate the site. The remediation included a covered, clay-lined cell at the mill site in Canonsburg as well as erosion control measures and groundwater and surface water sampling. Based on these measures, we can reasonably conclude that these children, who were born over 20 years after the massive remediation, have experienced less exposure to uranium than any previous generations living in the area.
By comparison, industrial activity by the oil and gas industry began with the fracking of the Renz 1 Well in 2004. The Renz site, located just a few miles away from the Canon-McMillan school district, was the first fracking done anywhere in Pennsylvania as drillers explored the vast natural gas reserves in the Marcellus Shale formation. Drilling and the associated industrial activity, including compressor sites, processing plants, and open-air wastewater impoundments has continued steadily ever since throughout Washington County.
A map of natural gas permits and drilling sites in Washington County, Pennsylvania. Source: PA DEP
Based on this brief synopsis, there is nothing to discount environmental impacts as a possible cause of the high rate of Ewing’s Sarcoma cases in the community. (NOTE: To be clear, I am not claiming that oil and gas activity is to blame for the formation of this cancer cluster. All I am saying is that nobody knows for sure why these kids are getting sick, and that all possible factors must be considered as part of a legitimate investigation.) But there is simply no way the oil and gas industry would ever allow the kind of impartial scientific research necessary to know for sure. I know because I saw how the industry reacted to a similar incident, albeit on a smaller scale, back in 2012.
Revisiting the Cornerstone Care Incident of 2012: The Oil and Gas Industry and Government Working Together… To Lie to the Public
For the record, I was the State Representative for the 46th District of Pennsylvania from 2006 to 2014. My time in office quickly became defined by my ongoing battles with both the oil and gas industry and many of my colleagues who were either quick to look away or actively collude with the industry for personal political purposes. My legislative district, which encompassed the highest level of drilling activity in the region, also included about half of the Canon-McMillan school district. While I was not opposed to drilling per se, there were simply too many unanswered questions relating to environmental issues and a clear lack of regulatory oversight at any level.
Asking these questions on behalf of my constituents made me unpopular; refusing to accept the clear propaganda presented to me as a response made me a Public Enemy Number One to the drilling industry. This reputation only grew as we exposed massive corruption between the industry and the state Department of Environmental Protection. The two parties were working together to deliberately rig water testing results to deceive residents into believing their water was safe, which couldn’t have been further from the truth.
In 2012, Cornerstone Care, a non-profit community health clinic located near the town of Burgettstown in northern Washington County, was forced to evacuate their facility on three separate occasions. Each time, the staff and patients experienced a smell that made them nauseous, causing vomiting and other effects. The problem, which only occurred on windy days began shortly after natural gas drilling company Range Resources fracked a well site and built an open-air wastewater impoundment nearby. At no point whatsoever did Cornerstone suggest drilling was the source of the problem; they just wanted the problem to go away so they could get back to helping sick people.
Cornerstone Care was in a valley, below the impoundment and drilling sites. So on windy days, the cloud filled with cancer-causing chemicals blew off of the impoundment, and because the chemicals were heavier than air, they settled down in the valley where Cornerstone was located. It’s fifth-grade science.
The Cornerstone Care Community Health Clinic in Smith Township, Washington County, PA
After the second evacuation, the CEO of Cornerstone came to the State Capitol to discuss the problem. The meeting consisted of the two of us, then-State Senator and drilling industry cheerleader Tim Solobay, and a staffer from the Department of Environmental Protection. After listening to Solobay and the DEP staffer do cartwheels trying to avoid the elephant in the room, I asked whether the drilling activity might be a factor because, you know, common sense. Despite their totally unfounded assurances that drilling couldn’t possibly be a factor, the DEP agreed to send a specialized air monitor to Cornerstone to gather more data.
Sounds reasonable, right? And it would have been if the entire testing process wasn’t a total sham. The DEP showed up on a day when there was no wind and no reports of any problems. Then they tested the air for the shortest possible amount of time with the most narrow testing parameters. Simply put, they didn’t want to find anything wrong, so they made sure they didn’t find anything wrong. When questioned about their highly suspect non-findings, the DEP released them to the media with no further explanation.
After the third evacuation, Cornerstone was forced to close its doors, creating a legitimate hardship for the people who used the clinic for all of their medical care. Almost immediately, a spokesman for Range Resources showed up with a news crew from KDKA television, a station that Range just happened to spend a ton of advertising money with. I went out to give a statement to “investigative reporter” Andy Sheehan on the condition that I didn’t want to get into an argument with Range because nobody was even accusing them of anything at this point.
After I gave my interview, Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella showed up and proceeded to explain on camera that the smell came from a few cans of paint sitting behind the building. Aside from having no basis for his claim, it couldn’t have possibly been true based on what we already knew. Industry cheerleaders quickly took to social media to create havoc and industry-funded websites ran in-depth pieces explaining how the problem stemmed from the paint cans, a neighboring junkyard, and a guy cutting his grass with a riding mower. The entire charade was total propaganda designed to divert attention away from finding the real cause of the problem.
The state Department of Environmental Protection is also “perplexed,” said John Poister, spokesman for the department’s Southwest Regional office.
Mr. Poister said the DEP air program workers did a “walk through” of the medical facility April 27 as well as the closest Marcellus well a quarter mile away but did not smell the odor at either place. He described the odor as an “indoor air issue” even though Mr. MtJoy said DEP has been told the odors have also been smelled outside the building.
“Strong Odors Close Burgettstown Clinic”
After a few months, the problem seemed to go away on its own and Cornerstone reopened its doors. The incident cost the non-profit clinic several hundred thousand dollars, and despite Range’s claims on television of doing all they could to help, they never gave a penny.
Shortly thereafter, we figured out what had happened at Cornerstone. The open-air wastewater impoundment, which is nothing more than a giant swimming pool filled with really nasty drilling wastewater and is almost guaranteed to leak into the groundwater, was releasing some really nasty chemicals into the air. Range Resources couldn’t even identify all of them, but we know there were definitely carcinogens in the mix. These chemicals are heavier than air, so instead of dissipating out into the sky, they formed a toxic cloud over the impoundment, which was built at high elevation so nobody could see what was going on there.
“So while my heart goes out to the folks that are there and we’re more than happy to help them and we’ve been working with them, it’s not a natural gas issue,” he said. (Mysterious Odor Closes Burgettstown Medical Clinic, 5/17/12)
Did anything ever come of what Range did? Of course not. Did the DEP take any action against Range for what happened? Of course not. And Cornerstone Care, having just witnessed first-hand how little their government cared about their clinic, employees, and patients, they chose not to rock the boat by pursuing the matter.
So Why Isn’t ANYBODY Talking About this Cancer Cluster?
I bring up the story of Cornerstone Care for one simple reason. If the natural gas industry was willing to go to such extreme lengths to prevent anyone from finding out the truth when the stakes were relatively low, who in their right mind would think they would be willing to allow an investigation into a cancer cluster impacting children? The industry (primarily Range Resources, which is the dominant driller in the area) has this whole thing on lockdown. Need proof?
First, why was this story only on WPXI? After all of the media attention devoted to Luke Blanock’s battle with Ewing’s Sarcoma, it seems odd that nobody is talking about Mitch Barton or the eight other local cases. Then again, most of the coverage of Blanock was about the community rallying around him, not investigating what caused his extremely rare form of cancer in the first place.
The newspaper of record in Washington County is the Washington Observer-Reporter. Guess how many articles they published about Mitch Barton and the eight other local kids diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma? You guessed it- zero.
But in fairness to the Observer-Reporter, it’s probably tough to find space for stories about local cancer clusters when they have so much Sponsored Content from Range Resources filling their pages. There is actually a section on the Observer-Reporter website labeled “sponsored content” with Range Resources getting their own page of feel-good “sponsored news.” It is not unusual for this “sponsored news” to work its way into prominent positions in the newspaper, blending seamlessly with actual news stories. Furthermore, Range’s long-standing status as an advertiser has definitely influenced news and editorial decisions at the Observer-Reporter and other local media outlets. I know because people inside the newsroom have straight-up told me so, and I have the screenshots to prove it.
Pockets Filled With Politicians
Municipal Officials? Check.
So what about the elected officials representing the Canon-McMillan school district? Well, the main photo on the Observer-Reporter’s Range Resources Sponsored Content Propaganda page features Canonsburg Mayor Dave Rhome posing with a Range employee during a 2000 Turkeys PR event. Coupled with the fact that he’s tight with former Senator Tim Solobay, (who was subsequently fired from his position as State Fire Commissioner by Governor Tom Wolf over sexual harassment allegations made by former staffers), it’s safe to say the mayor isn’t going to be speaking out anytime soon.
County Commissioners? Check.
This screenshot of Washington County Commissioners Diana Irey-Vaughn, Larry Maggi, and Harlan Shober was actually pulled from the Range Resources propaganda video below at the 2:02 mark.
Okay, well what about Washington County Commissioners Larry Maggi, Harlan Shober, and Diana Irey-Vaughn? If you want to know the likelihood of any resistance, look no further than Range Resources’ YouTube page. It’s filled with glowing quotes about drilling from all three County Commissioners, photo ops of check presentations, and a slick propaganda film marketing Washington County as the Energy Capital of the East.
Maybe they’re waiting for the sequel to talk about the kids with cancer?
The relentless focus on economics and jobs is pushed by the County Chamber of Commerce, which under the direction of the County Commissioners has gone so far as to essentially pull a hostile takeover of the County Tourism Promotion Agency. Don’t worry- there is a representative from Range Resources on the Board of Directors to make sure nobody goes off-script.
The County Commissioners are all up for re-election in 2019, and kids with cancer probably aren’t in a position to write checks for large campaign contributions. As a result, we probably won’t be hearing anything about Ewing’s Sarcoma from any of the County Commissioners anytime soon.
State Senator? Check.
If you think that was bad, the state legislators for the Canon McMillan school district make the County Commissioners look like members of Greenpeace. State Senator Camera Bartolotta actually has a billboard on the Pennsylvania Turnpike with her picture extolling the greatness of the oil and gas industry… paid for by the energy industry, of course. It’s not even a campaign billboard- it’s just there all the time to remind us what a friend she is to the drilling companies. That’s totally normal, right?
And when called out on the absurdity of the billboard, Senator Bartolotta, who is not without her own problems when it comes to questions of corruption, responded with this tweet containing one of the oil and gas industry’s greatest hits:
State Representatives? Check and Check.
State Representative Tim O’Neal, who was elected in a Special Election in 2018, touted his experience working in the energy industry along with his support for bolstering the oil and gas industry by decreasing regulations. A quick glance at O’Neal’s campaign finance reports shows he accepted donations from nearly every drilling-friendly politician around, including $5,000 from disgraced former Congressman and major industry shill Tim Murphy. He also took thousands from Range Resources, Chevron, CONSOL, and innocent-sounding outfits like “Secure Energy for America Association PAC.” To keep that cash rolling in, you need to be a team player, so yeah, safe to say Representative Tim O’Neal is on the payroll.
Doesn’t seem shady at all, right?
The chairperson of the PAC, Zachery Smith, lists CONSOL’s corporate headquarters as his address, and if you Google the listed address of the PAC’s Treasurer, David Young, this is what you get:
Yup, nothing to see here, right? This must be where they take the politicians to change their oil every 3,000 miles.
State Representative Jason Ortitay, who defeated me in 2014 with the help of nearly $400,000 in dark money, couldn’t be more of a puppet of the oil and gas industry if his nose grew every time he tells a lie. I’m not going to say anymore because I don’t want this to be perceived as sour grapes, but the next time he questions the oil and gas industry will be the first time. Ortitay’s record and his campaign finance reports speak for themselves.
U.S. Congressman? Check.
Finally, the newly-minted Congressman representing the area containing the Canon-McMillan school district is Guy Reschenthaler who never met a drilling industry campaign contribution he didn’t like. In his previous role as a State Senator, Reschenthaler wrote legislation to specifically undo parts of the state’s oil and gas regulations, which historically haven’t been enforced all that well anyhow.
As a Congressional candidate in 2018, he found a way to parlay his legislative prowess into grown-up money, pulling in $56,350 from the oil and gas industry. Only Congressional leadership PACs gave more, and it’s not hard to guess where much of their money comes from. So expect a hard pass from the Distinguished Gentleman from Cancer Cluster, USA when it comes to making the oil and gas industry accountable.
So Who is Left to Give a Damn About Kids With Cancer?
So with the media and the elected officials at all levels securely in the pocket of the oil and gas industry, who will be left to push for a real investigation as to the cause of these cases of Ewing’s Sarcoma?
Not a goddamn person, that’s who. The oil and gas industry owns Washington County, and whoever they don’t own is terrified to speak up and ask even the most innocuous questions. The fear of retribution is real, and to be perfectly honest, is justified. We are not dealing with nice people here. Their goal is to make as much money as possible while spending the least amount of money in the process. Greasing the skids by exerting financial influence on politicians and regulators while churning out propaganda and a few token donations to keep the folks happy and quiet is all part of doing business. If the situation sounds bleak and hopeless, that’s because it is bleak and hopeless.
There is no way something as serious as a rare cancer cluster targeting local children goes ignored on such a broad scale but for somebody operating in the shadows. Am I saying that the oil and gas industry is directly responsible for the dramatic increase of Ewing’s Sarcoma cases in the community? No. But if the oil and gas industry is exerting influence in a variety of ways to prevent the crisis from receiving the attention it deserves, then they are responsible.
And just so nobody thinks the oil and gas industry isn’t quietly paying attention to this problem, the same pro-drilling trolls who yelled and screamed about the Cornerstone Care incident are already coming out to pre-emptively absolve the drilling industry of any wrongdoing regarding the cases of Ewing’s Sarcoma. These fake grassroots efforts, known as astroturfing, are a clear sign that anyone who starts asking questions will end up being pilloried by some of the vilest people to ever sit down at a keyboard.
The anonymous old lady trolls Cecil Township Watchdogs behind this pro-drilling propaganda page are offering up thoughts and prayers, which have not yet been approved by the FDA as an effective treatment for cancer. Read their comments for a totally uneducated yet defiant statement about how Ewing’s Sarcoma can’t be related to drilling. They are some of the worst people on Earth, and they live in the Canon-Mac school district.
The Body Count Has Already Begun
When I was a state legislator, actively battling for transparency and accountability from the oil and gas industry and the cabal of sycophants posing as public officials, people would ask me what it was going to take for things to change. My response was always that it was going to take children dying for people to wake up and realize that money isn’t everything. And if the lack of media and political attention about a clear and present danger to the public health of our children is any indication, I was at least partially right.
The real question is apparently not if it will take children dying, but how many have to die. I don’t know the answer to that, but the horrific reality is that the body count is already underway.
1 hr, 19 min. Scott Smith introduced Raina Rippel of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project. Raina delivered an excellent, concise presentation on the rash of childhood cancers that have appeared in the Canon Macmillan School District in Washington County, as well as the rest of the four county area in southwestern Pennsylvania including Fayette, Greene and Westmoreland counties. 27 cases of Ewing so far
During her presentation, Raina features a new chart focused on air pollution around the Fort Cherry School District campus, where several childhood cancers have also appeared in an area that’s heavily drilled and fracked.
May 2, 2019 Ewing Sarcoma Update — The League of Women Voters of Washington County Pennsylvania hosted this public presentation by Raina Rippel of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project.
A March 28, 2019 story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Dave Templeton and Don Hopey included this, “Many in the Canon-McMillan School District first learned about Ewing sarcoma, a rare childhood bone cancer, when Luke Blanock of the village of Cecil was diagnosed on Dec. 5, 2013 …Six cases of Ewing sarcoma have been diagnosed within the school district since 2008, including two cases in the past nine months. And only now is it being disclosed that twice that number of Ewing cases have occurred in southeastern Westmoreland County since 2011. Only 200 to 250 cases of Ewing sarcoma — a rare cancer of the bone or nearby soft tissue — occur each year in the United States.
The National Cancer Institute said the incidence for all ages is one case per million but up to 10 cases per million among those in the 10-to-19 age group. In addition to the Ewing cases, a 14-year-old girl from Cecil Township died of astrocytoma, a brain and spinal cord cancer, in February, and as many as seven current students and two preschoolers in the Canon-McMillan School District have other types of cancer. Those nine consist of two cases of osteosarcoma (bone); one liposarcoma (joint); one rhabdomyosarcoma (muscle); a Wilms (kidney) tumor in a child whose family has moved from the district; one liver cancer; two cases of leukemia (blood); and a 2-year-old with cancer that the parent declined to identify. In another case, a 21-year-old Canon-McMillan graduate of North Strabane was diagnosed in early January with leukemia. The worries about Ewing and other forms of childhood cancer go well beyond the Canon-McMillan School District. In Westmoreland County, 12 cases of Ewing sarcoma were found to be diagnosed from 2011 through early 2018. The Westmoreland project presented the state with a long list of possible pollution sources, including countywide shale gas drilling and fracking operations and a Penn Township landfill that has accepted thousands of tons of radioactive drill cuttings from gas well sites. The project’s report also makes a case for how pollution exposure could lead to Ewing.”
The Human Toll, Risk and exposure in the gas lands by David Templeton and Don Hopey, May 14, 2019, Pittsburgh Gazette
[EXCELLENT VISUALS, VIDEOS AT LINK ABOVE]
There are high numbers of childhood cancers — some of them rare — in mostly rural areas of southwestern Pennsylvania, and no one knows why.
Most notably, the Canon-McMillan School District in Washington County has seen six rare Ewing sarcoma cases in a decade, including two diagnosed in 2018; only 250 cases are diagnosed each year in the U.S. And 10 other students and preschoolers currently living in the district have other types of cancers.
In addition, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has confirmed seven young cancer patients in recent years in and near the Fort Cherry School District, a smaller, rural school district next to Canon-McMillan. And over the past decade, as many as 12 students living in Bethlehem-Center School District in southern Washington County have had cancer.
Farther south, in Greene County, three students who lived in the West Greene School District have died from rare cancers since 2015; five students living in the Jefferson-Morgan School District have had cancer; and in the Carmichaels School District, there is a student with Ewing sarcoma and one with leukemia. A child with Burkitt’s lymphoma, a more aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, lives in the Southeastern Greene School District, where 600 students are enrolled.
There are multiple childhood cancers in other school districts in Washington and Greene counties, and cases have been reported throughout Fayette County. The Post-Gazette analysis did not include cases of childhood cancer in Allegheny County.
Pollution science is clear even if the skies are not. For every ton of airborne pollution, there’s a well-defined impact on human health, and more specifically, mortality.
In 2010, the Post-Gazette published its own epidemiological study of pollution’s impacts that showed 14 counties in southwestern Pennsylvania had 14,636 excess deaths from 2000 through 2008, when compared with the national average. Many of those additional deaths showed up in municipalities downwind from pollution-spewing, coal-based power, coke and steel plants.
As part of the Post-Gazette’s effort to update the 2010 “Mapping Mortality” project, Nicholas Muller, an economist at Carnegie Mellon University, was asked to study current air pollution and related mortality, and that review predictably — given the closure of many coal-fired power plants — shows pollution-related deaths in decline.
However, the Muller study also shows that deaths from locally generated pollution were in decline from 2008 until 2011, but then increased by about 100 deaths from 2011 to 2014. He said this reflects increases in locally emitted pollution — most likely from increases in local economic activity and the shale gas industry.
U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, one-third of the Pittsburgh-based steelmaker’s Mon Valley Works, continues to have an outsized impact on regional air quality, and awareness of that has heightened following the massive Christmas Eve 2018 fire that destroyed the facility’s coke oven gas desulfurization unit and led to repeated exceedances of federal air pollution standards.
And coal still accounts for most pollution deaths in southwestern Pennsylvania. But what are we being exposed to from fracking?
In addition to the CMU study, “The Human Toll: Exposure and risks in the gas lands” in coming months will look at the health impacts of this growing industry:
It will look at the additional risks to fetuses, infants and children; new research on the dangers of the ultra-fine particulates that are produced by natural gas and diesel fuel; the impact of the tons of radioactive materials being transported and disposed of in municipal landfills; the impact of the topography of southwestern Pennsylvania in pollution emissions; potential health impacts of the pollution from the Shell cracker plant under construction in Potter, Beaver County; and how shale gas drilling may have a greater impact than coal-burning on climate change.
Many parents, health advocates and public officials point to the proliferation of natural gas wells that have been drilled throughout these mostly rural counties over the last 15 years. Nearly 700 chemicals are used in fracking, which involves extracting oil and gas from rock by blasting chemicals, sand and water into drilled wells. Pollution emissions also occur through a network of pipes and other operations to process the oil or gas.
But so far no studies show a direct link between shale gas development and rare cancers.
“I think there are too many to be random,” said Carrie Simkovic of Jefferson Township, Greene County, founder of the Colby’s Stars Foundation Inc., which helps children and their families who are dealing with cancer. She started the foundation in 2011 after her son Colby was diagnosed in 2010, at age 8, with a rare nongerminomatous germ cell tumor of the brain. He’s now in full remission.
“There are cancers everywhere,” she said. “When you have a little town like ours and have so many cancers, you have to ask, ‘What’s going on here?’ ”
Show sources of pollution
Show Ewing sarcoma cases
(Dark blue dots indicate well sites)
A. Compressor station, Mt. Pleasant
B. Brigich compressor station, Chartiers
C. ABB Inc. disposal site, Muse-Bishop Road, Muse
E. Tanks, well and impoundment
F. Johnson compressor station, Chartiers
G. Marathon Cryogenics Plant, 800 Western Ave., Chartiers
H. Uranium mill tailings disposal site, North Strabane
I. Compressor station
J. Compressor station
K. Compressor station
L. Compressor station
Ewing sarcoma cases
- Curtis Valent, 23, Cecil, diagnosed in mid-2008; died Jan. 2, 2011
- Alyssa Chambers, 28, McDonald, diagnosed in late 2008 and survives
- Kyle Deliere, 27, Cecil, diagnosed in 2011, died Nov. 15, 2013
- Luke Blanock, 19, Cecil, diagnosed in Dec. 2013, died Aug. 7, 2016
- David Cobb, 38, Cecil Township, diagnosed in June 2018 and survives
- Mitchell Barton, 21, North Strabane, diagnosed Dec. 27 and survives
Since 2011, she said, the foundation has helped more than 20 children in Greene and neighboring counties, adding that she’s aware of other families who have children with cancer that never sought help through her foundation.
Without naming cancer victims, she described types and numbers of cases in multiple school districts. The Post-Gazette confirmed many of those cases through parents, relatives, published obituaries and Facebook postings.
“It’s disgusting how many people are battling cancer in our area,” she said. “If childhood cancers are on the rise, what about adults? The foundation gets numerous phone calls from [people with] new diagnoses. Along with childhood cancer, adult cancers are definitely on the rise. I hope investigations lead to answers on what’s causing this.”
CANCER AFTER CANCER
In November 2016, Nicole Stewart, now 19, then a Fort Cherry High School junior, went to her first Powderpuff Football practice. Having never played before, she was told, “Just run after the girl with the ball.” So she did, eventually colliding with another player and sustaining an injury that made it difficult for her to lift her right arm.
When the arm kept hurting, she saw a doctor. X-rays led to a followup scan because “something wasn’t right.”
At UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on Jan. 26, 2017, she received the diagnosis of Hodgkin lymphoma. “I didn’t cry right away,” she said.
Four months after that diagnosis, Grace Lipscomb, who went through Fort Cherry Elementary Center but graduated from Our Lady of the Sacred Heart High School in Coraopolis, was diagnosed with Stage III Hodgkin lymphoma, the same cancer as Ms. Stewart and both in their junior year. Prior to their diagnoses, a young adult who graduated from Fort Cherry but was living nearby in the Burgettstown Area School District was diagnosed with the same cancer.
“Why did this occur? I don’t know,” said Ms. Lipscomb’s mother, Sharon, who lives in Robinson, near McDonald in Washington County. Ms. Lipscomb and Ms. Stewart now are roommates at Clarion University. “I knew there were other older children, prior to Grace and Nicole who had been diagnosed with cancer, and overall it’s very concerning and scary.”
Ms. Lipscomb, 19, is majoring in physics. Her cancer is in remission.
“It was a huge shocker,” she said. “I was scared and didn’t know what to expect and didn’t fully understand it until I went through it.”
Fort Cherry cancer patients also include Catherine Samstag of McDonald, who was diagnosed with a thyroid and lymph-node cancer in March 2016, three months before graduating. Her mother, Christina, confirmed the diagnosis and posted on Facebook the need to move forward and focus on the positives.
“While 85% of people survive with this cancer, you will never again have the quality of life you once had,” she stated. “She has to take medication for the rest of her life to live. She is always tired, clumsy, forgetful. Her hair falls out in clumps. Her skin is dry. She is continually in pain.”
Her thyroid and one lymph node were removed with no recurrence to date. Now 21, she lives at home and works full time in retail.
The cause, Ms. Samstag’s mother said, “has to be something environmental, because there are so many cases.”
“My bigger concern is, here are all these cases with Canon-McMillan and we’re their neighbor. All the fracking is occurring along Route 980 in Canon-McMillan and Fort Cherry Road here. They are fracking in both school districts. That’s what I think is the common denominator.”
One mile east of McDonald, a 19-year-old woman from Sturgeon, a village straddling North and South Fayette, died in March 2018 from brain cancer. She was 17 when diagnosed, her grandmother said.
A GoFundMe account was established in 2015 for a 13-month-old with brain cancer near Midway in the Burgettstown Area School District, near the Fort Cherry border. Her father confirmed the child’s brain cancer but asked that her name not be published.
The tumor was an aggressive anaplastic ependymoma, which was fully removed during surgery. The child, now 5, is doing well, the website says: “She’s back to her normal habits like melting hearts with that nose-squinting smile” and pulling her sister’s hair.
Riley Karn was 15 when he was diagnosed in September 2012 with acute lymphoblastic leukemia after experiencing headaches, weight loss and a lack of energy.
The National Cancer Institute says potential causes of that form of leukemia include exposure to X-rays before birth and exposure to radiation. But linking a specific cancer to a specific cause most of the time is impossible.
Now 21, Mr. Karn, a 2016 Fort Cherry graduate, is studying management of information systems at West Virginia University. His mother, Lisa, says she ponders what might have caused his and the other cancer cases in the Fort Cherry district.
“Now we know about the others,” Ms. Karn said. “I would hope the school will do its due diligence to research these things. I don’t know how much control they have over environmental issues or if it is impacting kids.”
ONE OF MANY
Word-of-mouth concerns in Fort Cherry arose due to the numerous student cancers in Canon-McMillan School District, where elected officials, UPMC and state Department of Environmental Protection officials met April 24 with families struggling with Ewing sarcoma and other cancers.
After that meeting, state Rep. Tim O’Neal, R-South Strabane, said he would seek state and federal funding to search for a cause of rare cancers. In addition to the six cases of Ewing sarcoma, Canon-McMillan currently has two students with osteosarcoma (bone) and one each with liver cancer, Wilms tumor (kidney), liposarcoma (joint tissue), and leukemia. There are also three unrelated toddlers living in the district with leukemia, rhabdomyosarcoma (muscle) and neuroblastoma (nerve cells).
That total doesn’t include the Canonsburg Middle School student who died in February from astrocytoma, a brain and spinal cancer. Nor does it include Garrett Woznichak, a 21-year-old Canon-McMillan graduate and North Strabane resident now attending the University of Pittsburgh, who was diagnosed in early January with the same acute lymphoblastic leukemia that Riley Karn has.
The MPLX-Marathon cryogenics plant, one of the state’s largest, sits on a hilltop due west in neighboring Chartiers and is surrounded and flanked by gas compressor stations, all of them generating volatile organic compounds, methane and other pollutants.
As with wells in the Fort Cherry School District, heavy diesel truck traffic occurs daily, with the area also featuring storage impoundments for radioactive, carcinogenic and toxic fracking fluids.
Other potential pollution sources in Canon-McMillan include the U.S. Department of Energy uranium mill tailings disposal site near the high school. But annual testing shows radiation levels unchanged at or below naturally occurring or “background” levels, according to an online DOE summary of results (see the 1991 The Pittsburgh Press story about the history and cleanup of this site).
Others raise fears over the former ABB Inc. hazardous chemical site in Cecil Township near the village of Muse.
DEP spokeswoman Lauren Fraley said most of the waste — multiple drums and an underground storage tank — was removed in the 1980s and 1990s, with Cecil Township to take ownership and shoulder the “investigation and remediation” required to meet state standards. Groundwater exceeds standards but no known private well water users are nearby: “The DEP is not aware of any immediate health risk to site users or trespassers from soil or groundwater,” she said.
IS POLLUTION THE CAUSE?
The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an advocacy group for the fracking industry, says studies contending a cancer risk from oil and gas drilling are flawed. But that also applies to studies finding no cancer risk, including a controversial DEP report and an equally controversial 2013 study funded through the American Natural Gas Alliance, a coalition of 21 natural gas exploration and production companies.
“Our hearts break for anyone battling cancer, especially young kids,” said coalition President David Spigelmyer. “Given our industry’s deep commitment to protecting the health, safety and environment of our communities, and our strong support for fact- and science-based research, we are disturbed that some continue to make inflammatory suggestions that fly in the face of the opinions held by respected and unbiased medical experts.”
The industry operates under the so-called Halliburton Loophole — a 2005 exemption from segments of major environmental laws including clean air and water regulations. A provision in the 2005 energy bill, inserted by the Energy Task Force led by former Vice President Dick Cheney, exempted fracking from the Safe Water Drinking Act.
Academic studies have shown low birth weights, preterm births and birth defects linked with fracking and other pollution. Additional academic studies have found asthma and impacts on the neurological development and function of children, among other health problems, for those living close to well pads and shale-gas facilities.
Maryland has joined New York in banning fracking, with calls in New Jersey and Delaware to do the same in the Delaware River Basin to protect water quality.
Research on childhood cancer is just getting underway, and so far no studies have shown a direct link between shale-gas development and rare cancers.
“This is a very open question — whether unconventional natural gas development can lead to increased risks of cancers. Of about 20 health studies published to date, only two have addressed childhood cancer,” said Nicole Deziel, a Yale School of Public Health epidemiologist who led a 2017 study about chemicals used in fracking. Those two major studies included the 2013 Fryzek study that found no cancer risk while a 2017 Colorado study did find elevated numbers of childhood leukemia, a more common childhood cancer, in areas where drilling and fracking have occurred.
That small study done by the Colorado School of Public Health, that state’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, and the University of Colorado showed that people up to age 24 with acute lymphocytic leukemia “were more likely to live” closer to wells as compared to a control group in areas where fracking had not occurred. Cancer cases in that study were 4.3 times higher than the control group with a general increase in risk across age groups.
No such association occurred for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, or for children with cancer up to 4 years of age. Nor did the study show a link between cancer and the concentration of wells.
Ms. Deziel’s Yale study found 55 chemicals used in fracking fluids and wastewater that are known to cause cancer, with 20 of them already shown to cause such cancers as leukemia and lymphoma. Many other chemicals used in fracking have yet to be analyzed to determine whether they may cause other types of cancer.
“This is a hugely important issue with a big question mark that needs more studies,” she said. “It is not without plausibility because oil and gas sites have the potential to release carcinogens into the air and water. But we need more data to understand whether people living near these sites have an increased risk of exposure to environmental carcinogens or increased health risks.”
IN THE POLLUTION VORTEX
At the time of her diagnosis, Ms. Stewart lived with her family in Robinson, Washington County — a valley more than a mile from the Fort Cherry school campus. But up to ninth grade she’d lived in a house just below the hilltop campus that’s encircled by three drilled and fracked Marcellus Shale gas wells.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, documented in a 2017 report that pipeline-gas emissions dramatically were affecting air quality at two homes along Fort Cherry Road, directly south of where Ms. Stewart and her family were living.
According to the registry report, high concentrations of methane and benzene, the latter of which the federal Environmental Protection Agency identifies as “a known human carcinogen for all routes of exposure,” were vented into the air from a pipeline “pigging station.” Such stations are spaced throughout the pipeline system to launch “pigs” — devices that inspect, clean and maintain the interior of the lines.
The report said the venting posed a “potential for community exposures to emissions.” It found that the two families were living in a “threat zone” from methane and benzene exposure, leading to “mitigation action” to reduce their health-based exposure limits from the pipe-gas venting.
Close to where Ms. Stewart lived at the time, radioactive fracking fluids also were stored inside roll-off containers bearing radiation warning stickers on the Cowden well pad. The containers remained there for three months, after which the waste with the highest radioactivity was transported to Utah for disposal.
Radioactive waste also was stored at the Malinky well pad, in nearby Smith, less than two miles from the Fort Cherry campus, based on a 2014 Post-Gazette story that cited DEP and other sources.
Anita Steigerwald, 68, said her home — 500 feet from the pigging station and within 1,000 feet of the Cowden well pad — was one of the two included in the disease registry report. Having never received the report, she said the other family informed her about their combined exposure to benzene levels and methane.
She also said she received a May 2, 2014, letter from Range Resources, a natural gas company that drilled in her area, stating that material screened from the nearby Carter Impoundment, next to the Cowden well pad, showed “low but above background levels” of radiation.
This May 2, 2014, letter from Range Resources stated that material screened from the nearby Carter Impoundment, next to the Cowden well pad, showed “low but above background levels” of radiation.
Five years ago, she said, she was diagnosed with sarcoidosis in her lungs, which causes inflammatory cells to form. The inflammation likely is caused by “infectious agents, chemicals, dust and a potential abnormal reaction to the body’s own proteins,” according to the Mayo Clinic website.
Members of the other family mentioned in the registry report declined to comment because they are involved in litigation with drilling operations.
Airborne particulate pollution emitted from at least one of the well pads was reaching the Fort Cherry campus, according to an analysis conducted by the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Center, a nonprofit public health organization that assists and supports residents concerned about health impacts from fracking.
Adding to the air pollution are diesel powered tri-axle trucks that travel in caravans near the Fort Cherry campus, making up to a total of 5,000 round trips per well — typically over three to six months — to provide water, chemicals, sand, and supplies, for well fracking and then to remove fracking waste.
While undergoing chemotherapy, Ms. Stewart lost her waist-length hair but she said she dealt with the trauma with humor, including cancer jokes about herself. Her lymphoma is in remission, and she boasts that she missed only one day of school despite doctors’ appointments, surgery and rounds of chemotherapy. Currently, she’s a majorette at Clarion but there is a sadness to her smile.
A blue Sunpro container can be used to store and transport hazardous and radioactive waste. This one was at Range Resources’ Carter Impoundment in Mt. Pleasant, Washington County, in 2014. Range Resources in years past has stored radioactive waste at the Cowden well pad and the nearby Carter Impoundment. (Tony Tye/Post-Gazette)
“I expect it to come back, so if it does come I’ll be ready for it,” she said, despite the American Cancer Society’s report of an 87% survival rate beyond five years. “If you don’t have the right mindset, then you’re screwed.”
INTERACTIVE: The human toll, Risk and exposure in the gas lands
Refer also to:
2018 03 13: Rolling Stone reports on Compendium 5: ‘The Harms of Fracking’: New Report Details Increased Risks of Asthma, Birth Defects and Cancer. Dr. Sandra Steingraber: “Fracking is the worst thing I’ve ever seen.” Dr. Pouné Saberi: “There is a code of silence….” Workers rarely report injuries or hazards, for fear of losing their jobs.
2018 02 07: New Study: Frac chemical mix causes disturbing changes in breast tissue; Low levels of chemicals used in unconventional oil & gas production cause abnormal mammary glands and pre-cancerous lesions
2016 02 17: New peer-reviewed, published study by Lisa McKenzie et al, U Colorado School of Public Health: Childhood cancer linked to nearby oil and gas activity; People ages 5-24 diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia more likely to live in areas with a high concentration of oil and gas activity
2016 08 26: Two new peer-reviewed studies published after Florida significantly increases toxic chemicals allowed dumped in waterways: 1) Chemicals used in fracking, other gas, oil operations increase risk of miscarriages, reduced male fertility, prostate cancer, birth defects, preterm birth by disrupting hormones; 2) Lit review shows increased risk of negative reproductive effects from exposure to fracking, other oil, gas extraction activities, especially for miscarriages, reduced semen quality, prostate cancer, birth defects, preterm birth
2016 06 14: Elevated Cancer risks surround oil & gas drilling. Fracking is bad for your health says Israel Health Ministry official; Frac flowback stage causes greatest air pollution; WORLD-WIDE STUDY: One in three strokes caused by air pollution
2016 05 25: New Study: Alberta’s tar sands leading source of air pollution in North America, Tens of thousands of people living within reach breathing elevated levels of fine particles linked in previous studies to lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes
2016 02 25: New Study Confirms Fracking Wastewater Is Cancer-Causing. “Barium and Strontium were elevated in frac flowback water exposed cells.” Encana and Alberta government testing showed barium & strontium doubled in Ernst’s water after Encana’s illegal aquifer fracing
2015 11 23: Prevent Cancer Now calls out AER’s Health Fraud! “The AER has no jurisdiction for human health, and Alberta is famed for a chill against the medical community linking ill health to petrochemicals.”
2015 07 27: Pennsylvania Study Links Fracking to Health Hazards in Fetuses, Infants, Young Children: 35.1% more cancer in children ages zero to four in heavily frac’d counties. Compare to AER’s belittling, dismissive health study in the Lochend
2015 04 08: “It looks like fracking has unearthed an unbargained for and serious cancer risk in peoples’ homes.” John Hopkins study links radon levels in Pennsylvania homes to fracking: “These findings worry us”
2013 12 18: Hormone-disrupting chemicals found in ground and surface water at fracking sites, Peer reviewed study of fracking sites in Garfield County Colorado finds chemicals linked to infertility, birth defects and cancer
Kimberly Mildenstein, mother of two.
Read about her frac’d life in Andrew Nikiforuk’s Slick Water