By Shawn A. Hessinger, Tamaqua Bureau Chief, shessinger@republicanherald.com
The REPUBLICAN & Herald, © 2006

August 22, 2006

COALDALE — A meeting between state and federal health officials and local physicians has raised concerns with environmental advocates and even made it to the Internet.

An Aug. 16 session between officials of the Pennsylvania Department of State, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and doctors at St. Luke’s Miners Memorial Hospital also addressed concerns over Tamaqua’s Still Creek Reservoir.

“It was one of the things we were trying to do as far as education,” said Richard McGarvey, spokesman for the Department of Health, on Monday.

In an e-mail, Barbara Allerton, a representative of the Health Assessment Program within the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s Bureau of Epidemiology, wrote that the session was called to address local health concerns.

Specifically, Allerton wrote that the session was called to address concerns about the rates of illness in the Tamaqua area, in particular, cancer and the rare blood condition polycythemia vera.

However, Allerton’s e-mail, posted to a blog monitoring local environmental issues, also spoke of state officials’ efforts to “correct accusations” that the Tamaqua water supply, the 2.7-billion-gallon Still Creek Reservoir, had been contaminated by a former Superfund site.

The e-mail also referred to door-to-door surveys by environmental groups that “allege” that polycythemia vera is under-reported in the borough.

Polycythemia vera is a blood thickening disorder with an incidence of between five and 26 cases per million people, according to Hometown Hazards, a blog maintained by Raleigh, N.C.-based freelance writer and former Hometown resident Sue Sturgis.

McGarvey said Monday the disease has only been reported since 2001 and defended Allerton’s assessment of as many as seven cases claimed by Dante Picciano, director for Army for a Clean Environment, Tamaqua, and others.

He said the department would consider all cases alleged until they had been properly reported; however, McGarvey also said one of the purposes of the session was to insure that polycythemia vera and other cancers are being correctly reported.

McGarvey said a total of 75 diseases are reported by physicians and tracked by the state.

However, in response to Allerton’s e-mail, Picciano wrote that data in tests of the reservoir already indicated the possibility of trouble.

In a follow-up e-mail also posted to Sturgis’ Web site, Picciano pointed to a water analysis from 2004 showing a lead content of 76 parts per billion in untreated water from the reservoir, five times the drinking water standard.

The Tamaqua Area Water Authority has insisted the lead level was an anomaly, probably due to a lab error, and has not been repeated.

Picciano also detailed other contaminants collected in soil samples and a fish sample at the reservoir.

“I do not know whether there is a contamination problem at the Still Creek Reservoir, but I do know that there is evidence of a problem,” Picciano said in the e-mail response.

Concerns about the Still Creek Reservoir were kindled in June 2004 when a Carbon County environmental group reported that three people and possibly a fourth had contracted the rare blood cancer polycythemia vera along Ben Titus Road, Rush Township.

The road borders the northern bank of the Still Creek Reservoir and is in close proximity to 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 the Environmental Protection Agency.

But to date, McGarvey insists no proof exists that contamination at the site is linked to health problems or has contaminated the reservoir.

“We don’t have any evidence that that’s taking place,” he said.

“We haven’t been able to show that it hasn’t either,” he added.