By Shawn A. Hessinger, Tamaqua Bureau Chief
The REPUBLICAN & Herald: Local News, © 2004
September 30, 2004

TAMAQUA – A local environmental group will sample the hair of 24 residents around two major areas of environmental concern in eastern Schuylkill County.

Information gleaned from the samples will be included in a national survey of mercury contamination in humans.

The Army for a Clean Environment, a Tamaqua-based group with a membership of 800, will take the hair samples at Barnisky’s Barber Shop, 233 W. Broad St., in the borough between 9 a.m. and noon Monday.

“If the Pennsylvania Department of Protection (DEP) and Department of Health won’t do their jobs, we will do their jobs for them,” said Army for a Clean Environment leader Dante J. Picciano.

Members of the group and other local environmental activists are disheartened over what they perceive as inactivity on the part of the two state agencies in protecting local public health.

The group will be collecting hair samples to determine the mercury levels of residents living in close proximity to Tamaqua’s Springdale stripping pit and the former McAdoo Associates Superfund site near Ben Titus Road in Rush Township.

“Right now, we’re trying to get mainly residents from along Ben Titus Road and women of childbearing age because they’re the most vulnerable,” Picciano said.

Research indicates mercury contamination can easily be passed from mothers to unborn children.

Samples of hair taken from 24 volunteers will be sent to the Environmental Quality Institute at the University of North Carolina-Asheville for analysis as part of a larger survey being conducted nationwide by Greenpeace, the international environmental advocacy group.

Greenpeace is currently conducting nationwide testing of at least 10,000 people for mercury levels in an attempt to demonstrate the potential health danger posed by mercury contamination of the environment. “We’re doing this study all across the nation,” said Casey R. Harrell, coordinator of the hair testing project.

Harrell said Greenpeace had donated 24 of the hair testing kits, including rubber gloves, a scale for weighing the hair samples and a container to send them in, to the local Army for a Clean Environment when members had contacted Greenpeace to take part in the study.

Both groups claim that emissions from coal-fed power plants make up 42 percent of the total mercury contamination of the environment in the United States. Local leaders have called upon state environmental officials to halt the controversial use of coal combustion ash from coal fed power plants to fill Tamaqua’s Springdale stripping pit.

Mercury is also a component of coal combustion ash, Picciano said. Officials at the DEP have insisted the use of coal ash in the stripping pit is safe, even beneficial, citing research that suggests use of a complex “acid-based accounting” method allows the alkalinity of the ash to improve acidity in water and soil at already degraded coal mine sites.

Environmental groups maintain the ash poses a danger due to contaminants, including mercury, which they say could find their way into groundwater if placed in unlined pits like Springdale.

Environmentalists have also become alarmed over a plan to add a mixture of river dredge from the bottoms of the New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia harbors and cement and lime kiln dust to the ash already being placed in the pit.

The former McAdoo Associates Superfund site near Ben Titus Road, Rush Township, has also become a source of concern after a Carbon County environmental group, the Carbon County Groundwater Guardians, claimed three individuals, and possibly a fourth, living near the site had been diagnosed with polycythemia vera.

The rare blood thickening disorder conservatively impacts only one in 200,000.

An estimated 6,790 drums of hazardous waste were removed from the property between 1981 and 1982, according to Environmental Protection Agency records. In 1990, contaminated soil at the site was excavated. The site was “capped” in 1991 with a combination of soil and geotextile liners and then revegetated.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health conducted a statistical study of zip codes surrounding the site and concluded that no evidence could be found that cancer incidence in the area was linked to environmental contamination.

Although local environmental groups have maintained they are not anti-coal, but are simply pushing for more stringent guidelines in disposing of coal ash waste, Harrell says Greenpeace plans to use the test results to push for less government subsidy of the coal industry in favor of cleaner sources like solar, wind and geothermal power.