When the Kids Started Getting Sick

Westmoreland’s managers have maintained that their facility is nonhazardous and that “waste deemed hazardous through radiation detection would not have been disposed [of] in the landfill.” But, in the spring of 2019, Kruppa asked researchers from West Virginia University to test a few samples of liquid from the landfill for radioactivity. The test found that the levels of radium in the water were about five times higher, on average, than the national drinking-water limit. (In an e-mail, a spokesperson for the landfill contested the data and provided Westmoreland’s own results, which showed much lower levels of radium that still exceeded the E.P.A. standard, but only by a small margin.)

Desperate to stop taking the wastewater, Jackson and Kruppa contacted the D.E.P. and learned that, in fact, it was legal for the dump to accept fracking waste and send its runoff to the treatment facility; there were no regulations against such a practice. Two and a half months after Kruppa’s meeting with the landfill’s executive, the D.E.P. tried to arrange a compromise with the town: if Belle Vernon kept accepting the landfill’s waste stream for the time being, a state official wrote in an e-mail, “The landfill will agree to pay any penalties for effluent violations at the Belle Vernon plant.” Jackson and Kruppa took the question to the public. “We decided to blow the whistle on ourselves,” Kruppa told me. They announced that the plant’s discharge exceeded regulatory limits, prompting district prosecutors to intervene. John and Kendra Smith, the lawyers from Cecil, were hired to represent the plant. In May of 2019, a judge issued an injunction that protected the town from having to accept more contaminated runoff from the landfill.

Soon after, Pennsylvania’s attorney general, Josh Shapiro, launched an investigation into Westmoreland’s handling of its waste, which is ongoing. “Pennsylvania has a constitutional mandate to provide clean air and pure water for its residents,” Shapiro told me recently. “Too often, there is a profound gap between that promise and what people are experiencing as a result of corporate greed and failure in government oversight.” He added, “We’re committed to stopping these companies from hurting people and holding them accountable for the harm they’ve caused.” After paying a fine to the D.E.P., the landfill installed a new system to treat its runoff, and now sends it to other wastewater facilities. The landfill continues to deny any wrongdoing. “From 2010 to the current date, we have no reason to believe that there have been high levels of radium in our leachate,” or runoff, a spokesperson for the facility wrote in a statement. “We have performed rigorous testing in conjunction with independent laboratories, 3rd-party nuclear health physicists and the PA DEP. These tests indicate low levels of radium under EPA standards and relative to our peers.” A representative of the D.E.P. told me that the department had not been promptly notified of the results of West Virginia University’s probe in 2019, and that it has yet to see any definitive evidence of elevated radium levels at either the plant or the landfill. All Pennsylvania landfills, including Westmoreland, “are required to monitor all their incoming waste shipments for radiation to ensure the safety of workers and the environment,” the representative said, adding that Westmoreland’s officials “found nothing of significance.”

Fracking waste continues to make its way into Pennsylvania’s rivers. According to an investigation conducted by the Public Herald, as of August, 2019, fourteen other sewage-treatment plants in the state were each still accepting somewhere between thirty-six million and a hundred million gallons of fracking wastewater a year. Jackson told me that, though he is “not a big environmentalist,” he has taken to travelling up and down the river to make sure that officials in other towns know what the companies are hauling.

On February 13, 2019, WPXI, a local TV station, aired the first story on Ewing’s sarcoma cases among young people in Washington County. Soon after, David Templeton and Don Hopey, reporters at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, documented at least twenty-seven cases of Ewing’s diagnosed between 2008 and 2018 across Washington, Greene, Westmoreland, and Fayette Counties. Templeton and Hopey raised the possibility that the cancers could be caused by radioactive fracking waste in the water. The parents, who’d known about one another only through word of mouth, were shocked by the scale of the problem. Valent told me that, when she read the article, she thought, “Holy crap, there are all these other kids!”

Cindy Valent’s son, Curt, died of Ewing’s sarcoma in 2011.

Valent, the Blanocks, and other parents from around the region began calling on the state to investigate. In April, 2019, the Department of Health released a seventeen-page report stating that the cases of Ewing’s sarcoma in Washington County did not constitute a statistically significant cluster. The parents kept pushing, holding rallies and requesting action. That November, Governor Tom Wolf allocated three million dollars to studying the potential hazards of fracking and said, in a press statement, “I understand and support the concerns of parents and desire of community members to learn more about the possible reasons for these cancer cases. It is imperative that we do all that we can to thoroughly research and advance the science on the health effects of oil-and-gas extraction.” The research, which will be conducted, in two studies, by the University of Pittsburgh, has yet to commence. The lead investigator on one of the studies, Evelyn Talbott, told me that it’s too early to comment on the inquiry’s parameters. “Planning for this investigation is still in early stages and no decision has been made on whether or not to include an examination of fracking waste,” she said in an e-mail. However, a spokesperson for the Department of Health confirmed that the study would look at correlations between illnesses among residents and their proximity to oil-and-gas infrastructure, but it would not directly examine the dangers of radioactive waste.

The potential limits of the research have drawn criticism. Tammy Murphy, the medical-advocacy director at Physicians for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit, told me that she believes the study should “include investigating radioactive waste streams. People want to know if it’s safe to live where they live and work right now, and there’s no way to do that if they’re going to ignore this major component.” Sara Innamorato, a Democratic state representative, who is working on legislation that would designate fracking waste as hazardous, agrees. “We’re talking about radium-226, which has a half-life of sixteen hundred years,” she said. “These are potentially dangerous elements that can hang around for a very long time. We need to better understand what the impacts are.” To some, these limitations are part of a larger pattern of failure by state agencies. Last June, Pennsylvania released the findings of a grand-jury investigation that faulted the D.E.P. for poor oversight and the Department of Health for failing to follow up on complaints about illnesses near fracking sites. “Understanding of the health impacts of fracking is a major problem because the D.O.H. failed to collect the data and do their jobs,” Shapiro said. (Both agencies have expressed a commitment to follow the recommendations in the report.)

Epidemiologists disagree about the likelihood that fracking waste is causing illness in the region. Benzene, which is prevalent in fracking waste, can cause leukemia, but no study has shown a definitive environmental cause for Ewing’s sarcoma. “We know how to look at mutations in a tumor and see evidence of environmental triggers,” Logan Spector, a childhood-cancer epidemiologist who studies Ewing’s, told me. “There’s one for tobacco, one for radiation—but Ewing’s is a very silent tumor.” Other scientists point out that, though we haven’t isolated a cause, some studies have shown a correlation between cases of Ewing’s and environmental factors. In 2005, for example, a study in the Lancet Oncology journal established a correlation between some children who contracted Ewing’s and parents who worked in the agricultural industry, which might have been related to the presence of pesticides and herbicides used on the farms; this finding suggested that an environmental trigger may make Ewing’s more likely to be expressed. “It’s worth looking into the role fracking waste can play in the causation of Ewing’s,” Richard Clapp, a cancer epidemiologist and a professor emeritus at Boston University’s School of Public Health, told me. “It’s in the public interest.”

Of course, the concentration of cancers in the region could be arbitrary. Kelly Bailey, an oncologist at the University of Pittsburgh medical school, told me that, while she is sympathetic to the plights of the parents, the clustering of an illness doesn’t necessarily indicate a shared cause; if you threw two hundred and fifty pennies up in the air, when they fell, they would clump somewhere. Richard Jackson, a former director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the C.D.C., said that what appear to be clusters of cancer are often simply the random distributions of illnesses across the country. “Most clusters don’t pan out since, sooner or later, out of dumb randomness, someone’s going to have more illness and someone’s going to have less,” he said. Johnni Daniel, the acting chief of the Health Studies program at the center, told me that one of the greatest challenges she faces is helping states to tell communities, after an intensive study, that no causal relationship has been found between an environmental trigger and local illnesses. “People jump to an environmental cause very early,” she said. “They want to understand why they have cancer, and we want to be able to give them answers, so it’s very hard when we can’t.”

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