By Shawn A. Hessinger, Tamaqua Bureau Chief, shessinger@republicanherald.com
The Republican & Herald, © 2005

August 11, 2005

TAMAQUA — A memo from borough manager Kevin A. Steigerwalt to the Tamaqua Area Water Authority is raising new questions about the testing of the borough’s 2.7-billion-gallon Still Creek Reservoir.

The memo, dated May 23, was turned over by Steigerwalt’s staff last month. It suggests results of last year’s testing, following concerns over a nearby former Superfund site, are not “representative” of the entire reservoir.

The memo raises questions about how certain borough officials can assure the public that water at Still Creek, which supplies the entire borough and numerous surrounding communities, was never contaminated by the site.

“To prove or disapprove that would require extensive testing. After what we’ve seen, is there a need to go any further?” Steigerwalt asked.

In early January, Brian A. Connely, Tamaqua Area Water Authority chairman, said water in the reservoir was “basically” fine and that officials were “confident” with the outcome of testing.

Both Councilwoman Patricia Freeh-Stefanek and water authority member John J. Tracey expressed a similar sentiment at a recent Tamaqua council meeting.

The issue of the test results was again raised by council candidate Cathy A. Miorelli, a school district nurse who has performed door-to-door surveys in Rush Township collecting data on cancer incidence near the former McAdoo Associates Superfund site.

But in Steigerwalt’s memo, referring to a phone conversation with Stephanie A. Olexa, Ph.D., whose company, Benchmark Analytics, performed the tests at Still Creek, Steigerwalt admitted the tests were insufficient to draw conclusions about the entire reservoir.

“Concerning the number of samples collected, Olexa stated that three soil, one water and one fish sample is certainly not a representative sampling for the 2.7-billion-gallon Still Creek Reservoir,” Steigerwalt wrote.

“She cannot say if more samples will yield any additional information,” he added.

In the memo, Steigerwalt also suggests that financial as well as other factors entered the decision process when considering how many tests to perform.

“However, TAWA had to start somewhere and costs were a concern. The five samples that were tested cost a total of $3,090,” Steigerwalt wrote.

In the memo, Steigerwalt also insists that Olexa adamantly defended the results of the tests that were performed, including the dilution of three soil samples from the bottom of the reservoir.

Dr. Peter J. Baddick, a local physician and environmental advocate, earlier criticized the dilution of those samples, claiming they were 98 percent water and thus not even representative of sediment on the bottom of the reservoir.

Contacted last week, Olexa refused to discuss the issue further without clearance from either Steigerwalt or the water authority.

After Steigerwalt promised to contact Olexa and give permission for her to discuss the issue, Olexa failed to return a call.

Steigerwalt also insisted that, at present, the water authority does regularly test treated water at its Still Creek facility for a wide variety of contaminants, including volatile organics like benzene.

Exposure to the petroleum product has been suspected as a possible cause of diseases like Polycythemia Vera, a rare blood thickening disorder, not only near the McAdoo Associates site, but also in a similar case in Missouri.

William Manner, environmental program manager for the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Water Supply Program, said the borough would have been required to test for volatiles like benzene since January 1995.

That date is two years after passage of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and five years after EPA records say final cleanup at the McAdoo Associates site was completed.

Manner also said volatiles like benzene tend to “offgas” rapidly in the presence of oxygen, making them less of a concern in surface reservoirs than in groundwater.

In June 2004, a report by the Carbon County Groundwater Guardians, a nonprofit environmental group, claimed three people, including a married couple, had been diagnosed with Polycythemia Vera and a fourth was undergoing evaluation for a potentially similar condition in close proximity to the site.

Concerned local medical officials say a door-to-door survey found more than 50 incidences of cancer in close proximity to the former McAdoo Associates.

The EPA declassified McAdoo Associates from the Superfund list of the nation’s most serious uncontrolled or hazardous waste sites in 2001.

But EPA records show the 8-acre site just off Route 309 and a smaller .5-acre site on Blaine Street in McAdoo were once polluted with at least 30 contaminants, some posing serious health effects, including benzene.

The site was “capped” in 1991 with a combination of soil and geotextile liners and revegetated.