By Shawn A. Hessinger, Tamaqua Bureau Chief
The Republican & Herald, © 2005

January 26, 2005

TAMAQUA — After nearly a month of delay, the Tamaqua Area Water Authority has released the test findings on samples taken from its massive Still Creek Reservoir.

Although authority officials remain “confident” about the quality of water in the reservoir, one concerned physician says more data might be needed to dispel concerns about impact from a nearby former Superfund site.

“Basically the water is fine. There is nothing in the test results that should cause any alarm whatsoever,” said Brian A. Connely, chairman of the water authority, which released the findings on Monday after two failed attempts to meet with lab representatives.

In a letter made public by the authority Monday evening, Stephanie A. Olexa, president of Benchmark Analytics, Center Valley, said her lab had found no targeted semi-volatile compounds or PCBs in the samples taken from the 2.7-billion-gallon Rush Township reservoir.

Olexa said the testing had detected only one targeted volatile organic compound, methyl ethyl ketone, just at the detection limit in one of three sediment samples taken from the reservoir floor.

Olexa said the compound, exposure to which, according to a website maintained by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, can result in pulmonary edema, breathing problems, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea and dermatitis, was also found below reporting limits in two other samples.

According to the letter, the Lehigh County lab also discovered a zinc level of 7.34 parts per million in a tissue sample from a catfish removed from the reservoir, while two metals, lead at .076 milligrams per liter and zinc at .056 mg/l, were found in a sample of untreated water taken from the reservoir.

While Olexa called the zinc level found in the catfish sample “typical,” she said that no current lead standard exists for raw, untreated water and that zinc is not a primary element regulated in drinking water by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

According to Olexa, EPA rules require testing of water for lead at the homeowner’s tap and that 90 percent of samples taken be under .015 mg/l.

As a “secondary contaminant,” Olexa said the standard for zinc is 5 mg/l.

In tests for metals from three samples taken from the bottom of the reservoir, Olexa said that beryllium, cadmium, lead, nickel and zinc were found, but all at levels below that of standards set for clean fill by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

“We are very confident. I don’t know how far we could go to prove there’s nothing wrong,” Connely said.

But Dr. Peter J. Baddick, a West Penn Township physician who has raised concerns about the reservoir and its proximity to the former McAdoo Associates Superfund site just over a mile away, said he is concerned about the detection levels used by the lab in its testing.

Baddick also questioned the statistical significance of the samplings taken in a body of water so large.

“In order to find out how old a tree is, you count the number of rings,” Baddick said.

But he added that in testing sediment at the bottom of the reservoir only three samples had been taken and only about 12 inches of sediment had been taken in each case.

Baddick said the same procedure had been used in testing fish for the possible bioaccumulation of contaminants in the reservoir.

“Keep in mind that they sampled one fish, which is statistically insignificant in a representation of marine life in the reservoir,” Baddick said.

Baddick is concerned because he says that the northern slope of the reservoir flows down from the former McAdoo Associates site where, in 1981-82, 6,790 drums of hazardous waste were removed as part of an EPA-mandated cleanup.

Six above-ground storage tanks containing organic solvents were also located there, EPA reports say.

Other officials have insisted that no runoff could possibly have reached the reservoir from the McAdoo Associates site.

Renewed public concern over the McAdoo Associates site was rekindled in June 2004, when the Carbon County Groundwater Guardians, a Palmerton-based environmental group, claimed three people and possibly a fourth had contracted the rare blood disease polycythemia vera in close proximity to the site.

Baddick insists incidence of liver cancer, testicular cancer among younger men and other cancer is on the rise in the area.

Late last year, he said a door-to-door survey found 53 incidences of cancer in a four-mile radius of the site, a fairly rural area four miles north of Tamaqua. He said at the time he was also aware of 21 cases of leukemia in the immediate area.

A statistical study by the Pennsylvania Department of Health in October 2004 of cancer rates in nine local zip codes seems to downplay environmental connections with cancer rates in northeastern Schuylkill County and has been widely criticized.

Connely said a meeting with Olexa two weeks ago to discuss the results of the tests, which Borough Manager Kevin A. Steigerwalt termed “difficult for the lay person to understand,” was canceled due to illness.

He said another attempt to get Olexa to attend at water authority meeting Monday also failed to materialize.

Baddick said he had hoped discussions with Olexa about the testing might clear up uncertainties about the results.