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.

cancer cluster ewing's sarcoma washington county pa jesse white mitch barton luke blalock range resources canon mcmillan
Luke Blanock married his high school sweetheart prior to succumbing to Ewing’s Sarcoma in 2016. Source: GoFundMe.com

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. 

cancer cluster ewing's sarcoma washington county pa jesse white mitch barton luke blalock range resources canon mcmillan
Marie Curie visits the Standard Chemical Company’s Uranium Plant in 1921. Source: Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania

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.

cancer cluster ewing's sarcoma washington county pa jesse white mitch barton luke blalock range resources canon mcmillan
cancer cluster ewing's sarcoma washington county pa jesse white mitch barton luke blalock range resources canon mcmillan
A map of natural gas permits and drilling sites in Washington County, Pennsylvania. Source: PA DEP

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.

Source: New York Times

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.

cancer cluster ewing's sarcoma washington county pa jesse white mitch barton luke blalock range resources canon mcmillan cornerstone care
The Cornerstone Care Community Health Clinic in Smith Township, Washington County, PA

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 Pitzarella

Range 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.

cancer cluster ewing's sarcoma washington county pa jesse white mitch barton luke blalock range resources canon mcmillan observer reporter

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.

cancer cluster ewing's sarcoma washington county pa jesse white mitch barton luke blalock range resources canon mcmillan observer reporter
Sponsored Content ? Back in my day we called it Fake News.

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.

cancer cluster ewing's sarcoma washington county pa jesse white mitch barton luke blalock range resources canon mcmillan dave rhome

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?

cancer cluster ewing's sarcoma washington county pa jesse white mitch barton luke blalock range resources canon mcmillan camera bartolotta
This is an actual thing.

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.

cancer cluster ewing's sarcoma washington county pa jesse white mitch barton luke blalock range resources canon mcmillan tim oneal
Doesn’t seem shady at all, right?

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:

cancer cluster ewing's sarcoma washington county pa jesse white mitch barton luke blalock range resources canon mcmillan secure energy for america association pac
Yup, nothing to see here, right? This must be where they take the politicians to change their oil every 3,000 miles.

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.

cancer cluster ewing's sarcoma washington county pa jesse white mitch barton luke blalock range resources canon mcmillan jason ortitay eqt
Enough said.

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.

cancer cluster ewing's sarcoma washington county pa jesse white mitch barton luke blalock range resources canon mcmillan guy reschenthaler
Source: OpenSecrets.org

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 anonymous old lady trolls Cecil Township Watchdogs behind this pro-drilling propaganda page are offering up thoughts and prayers, which have not yet been approved by the FDA as an effective treatment for cancer. Read their comments for a totally uneducated yet defiant statement about how Ewing’s Sarcoma can’t be related to drilling. They are some of the worst people on Earth, and they live in the Canon-Mac school district.

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.


I have seen some of the comments attacking my credibility as a reason to diminish what I have written. If you think what I’m saying and the series of events that led to my diminished credibility are unrelated, then you really don’t get what’s going on here. I knew that my political career had a shelf life when I decided that I couldn’t ignore these issues a decade ago because I knew we would ultimately end up in this situation.

Had I played ball, I would probably still be in office or made a lateral move to a cushy judge position, but that didn’t happen. I have taken full responsibility for the manner in which I dealt with the onslaught of attacks, many of which have never been made public. At this point, I have nothing to lose except for the health and safety of my kids, so I really don’t care about the opinions of those who know far less than what I know to be true.


  1. Kimberly Joyce

    Jessie I agree with you that there is cancer oh and the Canon Mcmillan school district . I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003 and I can count at least 10 more women of my daughters friends mom’s also diagnosed . I truly believe that is an environmental but I have admit I believe wevertown with their environmental waste had a lot to do with it .

  2. Robin Fox

    We have a similar situation regarding a health crisis cluster. Within less than a quarter mile, three men were diagnosed with ALS in a less than two years. Two are now deceased, my husband is the third. Others have symptoms. I’ve tried reaching out to WV health department, Environmental Protection Agency and CDC. They all pass me on to the next agency. I also sat in Shelley Moore Caputo’s office in DC and she said it would be looked at. That was nearly a year ago. Nothing. I’m not surprised

  3. Hi, Jesse. Thank you bringing attention to a muted subject. My cousin was one of the 8 victims of Ewing’s Sarcoma you speak of, so I took a step forward I didn’t see in your article. I just called the PA dept of Public Health and left a voicemail verbally directed to the epidemiologist for 15321 zip code, requesting attention to this increased incidence rate. Have you been in touch with the epidemiologist for the area? 8 of 200 national cases in a single county should be a major alert on that person’s jurisdiction and scope of work. This might be the next best option to getting some focused scientific attention in the area. If this is a dead end, I would recommend the DPH at the federal level or the American Cancer Society. You shouted out loud, and I want your statement to resonate about the prevalence of this unique disease. Thank you for your bravery and effort.

  4. Kelly Pensenstadler

    The gas co is putting a well in Mingo Park area and came to me about me signing over my deep gas rights. I had an attorney look at the paperwork and he suggested that they put on an addendum that says if my well becomes contaminated and can be attributed to fracking activity that they will help me hook up to city water. It’s been radio silence ever since. No one will call me back and to be honest I can’t afford to fight them.

  5. Bekki Shining Bearheart

    Thank you , Jesse, for speaking truth to power. Someday– probably not soon– you will be known for your heroism and willingness to speak the truth whatever the cost. I was born in PA, and have many family members there. I have been watching this horror go on for many years, in PA and WV. and other places. So sad to see our wonderful country sacrificed for the greed of a few, and our people murdered by these oil companies.

  6. Anu Gupta

    Mr. White, thank you for the article, and thank you for giving me something to think about. I’ve always been suspicious of fracking, and frankly, Ortitay hasn’t done jack in the time I’ve seen him in office, so I was predisposed to sharing your article. I did share, and ran into a neighbor friend who’s family has been in the area for six generations. The death rates and cancer clusters of what you’re proposing isn’t new. Health and cancer clusters in the region have been part and parcel of Western PA for a long time. I did my own digging. Here’s what I found:

    1) PA has higher than the US mean cancer rates and always has.

    2) Washington County has higher than the US mean cancer rates and always has.

    3) Cancer rates continue to be on a steady decline in PA and in Washington county per capita at a rate similar to US declines.

    Bottom line: If you live in Washington County or nearby, you’re probably at a higher risk of cancer than the rest of the US. But the good news is we are steadily getting healthier over time.


    I have asked for a detail breakdown by municipality and population over the last thirty years however from the Pennsylvania department of health.

    I’m still suspicious of O&G and fracking, and I’m still concerned with how little we regulate the industry – which really just puts any other sustainable, clean, safe energy source out of reach – such as nuclear. Sure, we can be suspicious, but let’s also make sure sure we have firm foundation to stand on when we smell something funny. Pun intended.

  7. Laureen Czemerda

    I understand and empathize with you and the children and families about the cluster cancer but you briefly mentioned the uranium site in Stranane and went on and on about the oil and gas industry. Have you inquired how many people were stricken with cancer who lived and spent time in Strabane. My grandmother and father spent a lot of time in Stranane in the 1950s. My grandmother died from colon cancer and my father died of esophagus cancer. You need to do some research on that connection not just concentrate on oil and gas. Are there cancer clusters in Greene County or Bradford who have the largest number of wells? Also, my father and father in law and many of their friends worked at the former Transformer and both of them and many of their friends died of cancer. Pennsylvania Teansformer was loaded with PCBs a known carcinogen. So my father was exposed to the radiation in Strabane and the PCBs at the Transformer. Are either of those the cause of his cancer? He died in 1995 so he was never exposed to fracking. I’m not saying fracking couldn’t be the cause but to be fair I think you need to do more research on other causes and find out more about other areas in the state with gas wells and the cancer rates there.

  8. Carolyn J Knapp

    Totally Agree! The same is happening in Bradford County. People have just become accepting or fearful of the truth!

  9. Corrina Blystone

    I just read a book titled Amity & Prosperity by Eliza Grizwold – same type of subject