By Shawn A. Hessinger, Tamaqua Bureau Chief
The REPUBLICAN & Herald, © 2004

July 23, 2004

TAMAQUA – State officials will conduct a study prompted by three cases of a rare cancer in Rush Township along Ben Titus Road.

But Joel H. Hersh, director of the bureau of epidemiology for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, warned concerned residents Thursday that finding an absolute cause for the afflictions might be a problem.

“You’d like us to find a smoking gun. Lots of times we don’t know why,” Hersh told a group of 20 at a public meeting of state officials and local residents called by state Rep. David G. Argall, R-124, at the Tamaqua Community Center.

Although Argall did not attend, due to prior commitments, an aide, Micah J. Gursky, said the meeting had been moved from Argall’s 237 W. Broad St. office because of space considerations.

Also present was Democratic 124th Legislative District Committee Co-chairman William J. Mackey, representing Christian P. Morrison, Tamaqua, who will seek Argall’s seat in the general election Nov. 2.

Organizers said they had not been certain how many members of the public to expect, since a previous press conference on the issue by the Carbon County Groundwater Guardians (CCGG), a nonprofit environmental watchdog group based in Palmerton, at the Quakake Fire Company drew 50 people.

However, several rows of chairs set up for spectators remained unoccupied and concerned residents and state officials crowded around a long conference table for a 21/2-hour discussion.

Hersh said his bureau will begin with a statistical study, by epidemiologist Gregory F. Bogdan, of reported cancer diagnoses within Rush Township and surrounding areas, including Tamaqua and McAdoo, to determine whether “hot spots” of illness can be identified.

Data provided by the Pennsylvania Cancer Registry, a database, dates back to 1985 when the Pennsylvania Department of Health began requiring the reporting of all cancer diagnoses in the state.

The health study will be more complete than an earlier effort using data from 1979 to 1981 reflecting reported deaths from cancer. That report, Hersh said, presents an incomplete picture of the incidence of cancer in the area.

“Someone could live for five years, they could live longer or they could be cured of cancer,” Hersh said.

That study could be followed by a larger statistical study of a broader geographical area, perhaps including most of northern Schuylkill County. Hersh said state officials could then attempt to determine a possible cause for high cancer rates in the area.

But study of other diseases, such as multiple sclerosis and lupus, which residents claim are also prevalent in the area, will be more difficult, Hersh said, since health organizations are under no obligation to report their diagnoses to the state.

Although some residents believe a local Superfund site near Ben Titus Road in Rush Township, where many cancer cases have been reported, is a possible cause, numerous other sources, from imported fly ash dumped in local stripping pits to emissions from waste coal burning cogeneration plants and other industrial facilities, were also discussed.

A report compiled by the CCGG says three people, including a married couple, have been diagnosed and a fourth is undergoing evaluation for a rare bone marrow disease.

All three individuals, and possibly the fourth, have contracted polycythemia vera, a rare disease characterized by thickening of the blood due to excess production of red blood cells. Incidence of the disease is roughly one case in 200,000 persons and might be even rarer.

Polycythemia vera has been linked to exposure to benzene and organic solvents, including tetrachloroethylene and Stoddard solvent.

All three individuals live near the former McAdoo Associates Superfund site where, between 1978 and 1979, an estimated 7,000 drums and six above-ground tanks contained volatile organic compounds, according to an EPA website.

The CCGG were contacted by Betty Kester in August 2003 to determine whether she and her husband Lester’s contractions of the disease might be related to contamination of their drinking water.

The Kesters’ water supply comes from a 50-foot deep well that is 20 years old, according to the report.

A neighbor, William Hinkle, who lives within 100 yards of the Kesters and has a 125-foot deep well, also has contracted the disease. Another member of the Hinkles’ extended family, his wife’s nephew’s wife, Amy Werner, is also being treated for “thick” blood, according to the report, and was placed on Coumadin. She also lives on Ben Titus Road.

But Robert K. Lewis, manager of the hazardous sites cleanup program for the northeast regional office of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), who also attended the meeting, insisted that groundwater from the McAdoo Associates site could not have found its way into wells along Ben Titus Road, based on the area’s hydrology.

However, Joseph L. Krushinsky Sr., Ben Titus Road, who estimates his home is located between 800 to 1,000 feet from the foot of the mountain and believes the site has contributed to his own battles with cancer, does not believe that.

During a mandated cleanup of the site by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Krushinsky claims to have seen trucks with license plates from New York and New Jersey dumping materials into open mine shafts in the area.

“Nobody can tell me that we aren’t being harmed by this,” Krushinsky said. “What was dumped down into that mountain?”