Despite a growing rare cancer cluster affecting children in a small community in Washington County, Pennsylvania, few people seem to care, and even fewer people are actively attempting to determine the cause. Why? Because the oil and gas industry, firmly entrenched in the area for over a decade, will do anything to prevent a scientific, objective search for truth.
How do I know? Because the same thing happened seven years ago, albeit on a much smaller scale. Instead of trying to identify the cause of the health concerns, the oil and gas industry intervened and proceeded to take extraordinary steps to collude with corrupt public officials, misdirect the media, and lie to the public about even the most remote possibility that the fracking process could have possibly been to blame. But before we go back and examine what happened in 2012, here are the facts relating to the current health crisis:
Ewing’s Sarcoma: The Canon-McMillan Cancer Cluster
A story appeared on the website of NBC Pittsburgh affiliate WPXI in mid-February titled, “Former Student Diagnosed with Rare Cancer That Killed Classmate.” The focus of the piece was a young man named Mitch Barton who is battling an extremely rare form of cancer called Ewing’s Sarcoma. Impacting primarily children and teenagers, fewer than 200 cases of Ewing’s Sarcoma are reported nationwide per year.
But this isn’t the first case of Ewing’s Sarcoma the communities that comprise the Canon-McMillan school district, located about 30 minutes south of Pittsburgh, have encountered. In 2016, another Canon-Mac student, Luke Blanock, lost a high-profile battle with Ewing’s Sarcoma diagnosed three years earlier.
And unfortunately, it looks like Blanock and Barton are not the last cases of Ewing’s Sarcoma the Canon Mac community will be forced to endure. According to the WPXI story as many as eight parents have reached out to the families of both victims because their own children have also been diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma.
The random diagnosis of at least ten children with an extremely rare form of cancer in one school district is statistically impossible. With 200 cases annually among 74 million children nationwide, the odds of contracting Ewing’s Sarcoma are approximately 1 in 370,000. Based on the 2018 enrollment figure of 5,297, and assuming the additional cases of kids with Ewing’s Sarcoma are in the same school district, the odds of a student living in the Canon-McMillan school district is 1 in 530. While my math here is admittedly crude, the existence of a cancer cluster is impossible to ignore.
The next question seems obvious. What’s causing all of these kids to develop Ewing’s Sarcoma? Right now, nobody knows. The cancer is so rare that there is no clear cause, or even contributing factors. But given the proliferation of cases in a concentrated area, there has to be a root cause.
Christine Barton, Mitch’s mother, told WPXI that she is concerned about environmental factors, including oil and gas drilling as well as an old uranium dump in the area. “Could it be something environmental? We don’t know. It seems like for the cancer to be so rare, from what they tell us, and when you look at the numbers in our area…it just puts up a red flag.”
“The Most Radioactive Town in America”: A Local History of Uranium Mining
The existence of the uranium dump is hardly a secret. The Standard Chemical Company operated a radium refining mill from 1911 to 1922 in the area, which produced more uranium than all other plants in the world combined; Marie Curie herself visited the plant in 1921. From 1930 to 1942, the company purified Uranium ore. From 1942 to 1957, Vitro Manufacturing Company refined uranium and other rare metals on-site. The government bought this uranium from Vitro and used it in the Manhattan Project.
Under the 1978 Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act of 1978, the mill site and 163 adjacent properties received a $48 million grant to re-mediate the site. The remediation included a covered, clay-lined cell at the mill site in Canonsburg as well as erosion control measures and groundwater and surface water sampling. Based on these measures, we can reasonably conclude that these children, who were born over 20 years after the massive remediation, have experienced less exposure to uranium than any previous generations living in the area.
Fracking for Fun and Profit… Okay, Just for Profit.
By comparison, industrial activity by the oil and gas industry began with the fracking of the Renz 1 Well in 2004. The Renz site, located just a few miles away from the Canon-McMillan school district, was the first fracking done anywhere in Pennsylvania as drillers explored the vast natural gas reserves in the Marcellus Shale formation. Drilling and the associated industrial activity, including compressor sites, processing plants, and open-air wastewater impoundments has continued steadily ever since throughout Washington County.
Based on this brief synopsis, there is nothing to discount environmental impacts as a possible cause of the high rate of Ewing’s Sarcoma cases in the community. (NOTE: To be clear, I am not claiming that oil and gas activity is to blame for the formation of this cancer cluster. All I am saying is that nobody knows for sure why these kids are getting sick, and that all possible factors must be considered as part of a legitimate investigation.) But there is simply no way the oil and gas industry would ever allow the kind of impartial scientific research necessary to know for sure. I know because I saw how the industry reacted to a similar incident, albeit on a smaller scale, back in 2012.
Revisiting the Cornerstone Care Incident of 2012: The Oil and Gas Industry and Government Working Together… To Lie to the Public
For the record, I was the State Representative for the 46th District of Pennsylvania from 2006 to 2014. My time in office quickly became defined by my ongoing battles with both the oil and gas industry and many of my colleagues who were either quick to look away or actively collude with the industry for personal political purposes. My legislative district, which encompassed the highest level of drilling activity in the region, also included about half of the Canon-McMillan school district. While I was not opposed to drilling per se, there were simply too many unanswered questions relating to environmental issues and a clear lack of regulatory oversight at any level.
Asking these questions on behalf of my constituents made me unpopular; refusing to accept the clear propaganda presented to me as a response made me a Public Enemy Number One to the drilling industry. This reputation only grew as we exposed massive corruption between the industry and the state Department of Environmental Protection. The two parties were working together to deliberately rig water testing results to deceive residents into believing their water was safe, which couldn’t have been further from the truth.
In 2012, Cornerstone Care, a non-profit community health clinic located near the town of Burgettstown in northern Washington County, was forced to evacuate their facility on three separate occasions. Each time, the staff and patients experienced a smell that made them nauseous, causing vomiting and other effects. The problem, which only occurred on windy days began shortly after natural gas drilling company Range Resources fracked a well site and built an open-air wastewater impoundment nearby. At no point whatsoever did Cornerstone suggest drilling was the source of the problem; they just wanted the problem to go away so they could get back to helping sick people.
Cornerstone Care was in a valley, below the impoundment and drilling sites. So on windy days, the cloud filled with cancer-causing chemicals blew off of the impoundment, and because the chemicals were heavier than air, they settled down in the valley where Cornerstone was located. It’s fifth-grade science.
After the second evacuation, the CEO of Cornerstone came to the State Capitol to discuss the problem. The meeting consisted of the two of us, then-State Senator and drilling industry cheerleader Tim Solobay, and a staffer from the Department of Environmental Protection. After listening to Solobay and the DEP staffer do cartwheels trying to avoid the elephant in the room, I asked whether the drilling activity might be a factor because, you know, common sense. Despite their totally unfounded assurances that drilling couldn’t possibly be a factor, the DEP agreed to send a specialized air monitor to Cornerstone to gather more data.
Sounds reasonable, right? And it would have been if the entire testing process wasn’t a total sham. The DEP showed up on a day when there was no wind and no reports of any problems. Then they tested the air for the shortest possible amount of time with the most narrow testing parameters. Simply put, they didn’t want to find anything wrong, so they made sure they didn’t find anything wrong. When questioned about their highly suspect non-findings, the DEP released them to the media with no further explanation.
After the third evacuation, Cornerstone was forced to close its doors, creating a legitimate hardship for the people who used the clinic for all of their medical care. Almost immediately, a spokesman for Range Resources showed up with a news crew from KDKA television, a station that Range just happened to spend a ton of advertising money with. I went out to give a statement to “investigative reporter” Andy Sheehan on the condition that I didn’t want to get into an argument with Range because nobody was even accusing them of anything at this point.
After I gave my interview, Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella showed up and proceeded to explain on camera that the smell came from a few cans of paint sitting behind the building. Aside from having no basis for his claim, it couldn’t have possibly been true based on what we already knew. Industry cheerleaders quickly took to social media to create havoc and industry-funded websites ran in-depth pieces explaining how the problem stemmed from the paint cans, a neighboring junkyard, and a guy cutting his grass with a riding mower. The entire charade was total propaganda designed to divert attention away from finding the real cause of the problem.
The state Department of Environmental Protection is also “perplexed,” said John Poister, spokesman for the department’s Southwest Regional office.
Mr. Poister said the DEP air program workers did a “walk through” of the medical facility April 27 as well as the closest Marcellus well a quarter mile away but did not smell the odor at either place. He described the odor as an “indoor air issue” even though Mr. MtJoy said DEP has been told the odors have also been smelled outside the building.
“Strong Odors Close Burgettstown Clinic”Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 05/12/12
After a few months, the problem seemed to go away on its own and Cornerstone reopened its doors. The incident cost the non-profit clinic several hundred thousand dollars, and despite Range’s claims on television of doing all they could to help, they never gave a penny.
Shortly thereafter, we figured out what had happened at Cornerstone. The open-air wastewater impoundment, which is nothing more than a giant swimming pool filled with really nasty drilling wastewater and is almost guaranteed to leak into the groundwater, was releasing some really nasty chemicals into the air. Range Resources couldn’t even identify all of them, but we know there were definitely carcinogens in the mix. These chemicals are heavier than air, so instead of dissipating out into the sky, they formed a toxic cloud over the impoundment, which was built at high elevation so nobody could see what was going on there.
“So while my heart goes out to the folks that are there and we’re more than happy to help them and we’ve been working with them, it’s not a natural gas issue,” he said. (Mysterious Odor Closes Burgettstown Medical Clinic, 5/17/12)
Matt PitzarellaRange Resources Spokesman
Did anything ever come of what Range did? Of course not. Did the DEP take any action against Range for what happened? Of course not. And Cornerstone Care, having just witnessed first-hand how little their government cared about their clinic, employees, and patients, they chose not to rock the boat by pursuing the matter.
So Why Isn’t ANYBODY Talking About this Cancer Cluster?
I bring up the story of Cornerstone Care for one simple reason. If the natural gas industry was willing to go to such extreme lengths to prevent anyone from finding out the truth when the stakes were relatively low, who in their right mind would think they would be willing to allow an investigation into a cancer cluster impacting children? The industry (primarily Range Resources, which is the dominant driller in the area) has this whole thing on lockdown. Need proof?
First, why was this story only on WPXI? After all of the media attention devoted to Luke Blanock’s battle with Ewing’s Sarcoma, it seems odd that nobody is talking about Mitch Barton or the eight other local cases. Then again, most of the coverage of Blanock was about the community rallying around him, not investigating what caused his extremely rare form of cancer in the first place.
The newspaper of record in Washington County is the Washington Observer-Reporter. Guess how many articles they published about Mitch Barton and the eight other local kids diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma? You guessed it- zero.
But in fairness to the Observer-Reporter, it’s probably tough to find space for stories about local cancer clusters when they have so much Sponsored Content from Range Resources filling their pages. There is actually a section on the Observer-Reporter website labeled “sponsored content” with Range Resources getting their own page of feel-good “sponsored news.” It is not unusual for this “sponsored news” to work its way into prominent positions in the newspaper, blending seamlessly with actual news stories. Furthermore, Range’s long-standing status as an advertiser has definitely influenced news and editorial decisions at the Observer-Reporter and other local media outlets. I know because people inside the newsroom have straight-up told me so, and I have the screenshots to prove it.
Pockets Filled With Politicians
Municipal Officials? Check.
So what about the elected officials representing the Canon-McMillan school district? Well, the main photo on the Observer-Reporter’s Range Resources Sponsored Content Propaganda page features Canonsburg Mayor Dave Rhome posing with a Range employee during a 2000 Turkeys PR event. Coupled with the fact that he’s tight with former Senator Tim Solobay, (who was subsequently fired from his position as State Fire Commissioner by Governor Tom Wolf over sexual harassment allegations made by former staffers), it’s safe to say the mayor isn’t going to be speaking out anytime soon.
State Senator? Check.
If you think that was bad, the state legislators for the Canon McMillan school district make the County Commissioners look like members of Greenpeace. State Senator Camera Bartolotta actually has a billboard on the Pennsylvania Turnpike with her picture extolling the greatness of the oil and gas industry… paid for by the energy industry, of course. It’s not even a campaign billboard- it’s just there all the time to remind us what a friend she is to the drilling companies. That’s totally normal, right?
And when called out on the absurdity of the billboard, Senator Bartolotta, who is not without her own problems when it comes to questions of corruption, responded with this tweet containing one of the oil and gas industry’s greatest hits:
State Representatives? Check and Check.
State Representative Tim O’Neal, who was elected in a Special Election in 2018, touted his experience working in the energy industry along with his support for bolstering the oil and gas industry by decreasing regulations. A quick glance at O’Neal’s campaign finance reports shows he accepted donations from nearly every drilling-friendly politician around, including $5,000 from disgraced former Congressman and major industry shill Tim Murphy. He also took thousands from Range Resources, Chevron, CONSOL, and innocent-sounding outfits like “Secure Energy for America Association PAC.” To keep that cash rolling in, you need to be a team player, so yeah, safe to say Representative Tim O’Neal is on the payroll.
The chairperson of the PAC, Zachery Smith, lists CONSOL’s corporate headquarters as his address, and if you Google the listed address of the PAC’s Treasurer, David Young, this is what you get:
State Representative Jason Ortitay, who defeated me in 2014 with the help of nearly $400,000 in dark money, couldn’t be more of a puppet of the oil and gas industry if his nose grew every time he tells a lie. I’m not going to say anymore because I don’t want this to be perceived as sour grapes, but the next time he questions the oil and gas industry will be the first time. Ortitay’s record and his campaign finance reports speak for themselves.
U.S. Congressman? Check.
Finally, the newly-minted Congressman representing the area containing the Canon-McMillan school district is Guy Reschenthaler who never met a drilling industry campaign contribution he didn’t like. In his previous role as a State Senator, Reschenthaler wrote legislation to specifically undo parts of the state’s oil and gas regulations, which historically haven’t been enforced all that well anyhow.
As a Congressional candidate in 2018, he found a way to parlay his legislative prowess into grown-up money, pulling in $56,350 from the oil and gas industry. Only Congressional leadership PACs gave more, and it’s not hard to guess where much of their money comes from. So expect a hard pass from the Distinguished Gentleman from Cancer Cluster, USA when it comes to making the oil and gas industry accountable.
So Who is Left to Give a Damn About Kids With Cancer?
So with the media and the elected officials at all levels securely in the pocket of the oil and gas industry, who will be left to push for a real investigation as to the cause of these cases of Ewing’s Sarcoma?
Not a goddamn person, that’s who. The oil and gas industry owns Washington County, and whoever they don’t own is terrified to speak up and ask even the most innocuous questions. The fear of retribution is real, and to be perfectly honest, is justified. We are not dealing with nice people here. Their goal is to make as much money as possible while spending the least amount of money in the process. Greasing the skids by exerting financial influence on politicians and regulators while churning out propaganda and a few token donations to keep the folks happy and quiet is all part of doing business. If the situation sounds bleak and hopeless, that’s because it is bleak and hopeless.
There is no way something as serious as a rare cancer cluster targeting local children goes ignored on such a broad scale but for somebody operating in the shadows. Am I saying that the oil and gas industry is directly responsible for the dramatic increase of Ewing’s Sarcoma cases in the community? No. But if the oil and gas industry is exerting influence in a variety of ways to prevent the crisis from receiving the attention it deserves, then they are responsible.
And just so nobody thinks the oil and gas industry isn’t quietly paying attention to this problem, the same pro-drilling trolls who yelled and screamed about the Cornerstone Care incident are already coming out to pre-emptively absolve the drilling industry of any wrongdoing regarding the cases of Ewing’s Sarcoma. These fake grassroots efforts, known as astroturfing, are a clear sign that anyone who starts asking questions will end up being pilloried by some of the vilest people to ever sit down at a keyboard.
The Body Count Has Already Begun
When I was a state legislator, actively battling for transparency and accountability from the oil and gas industry and the cabal of sycophants posing as public officials, people would ask me what it was going to take for things to change. My response was always that it was going to take children dying for people to wake up and realize that money isn’t everything. And if the lack of media and political attention about a clear and present danger to the public health of our children is any indication, I was at least partially right.
The real question is apparently not if it will take children dying, but how many have to die. I don’t know the answer to that, but the horrific reality is that the body count is already underway.