The recent discovery of a potential child cancer cluster centered around the communities near the Canon McMillan School District in Washington County, Pennsylvania is finally generating widespread public interest as anxious parents search for the root cause behind multiple cases of a rare form of cancer known as Ewings Sarcoma. But the announcement of a closed-door public meeting of elected officials (including State Senator Camera Bartolotta and State Representatives Tim O’Neal and Jason Ortitay) and public health experts are raising serious concern among residents and the media alike. These concerns about the private nature of the meeting are not only legitimate but are also correctly questioning the need for secrecy on this issue.
Based on the statements already made by the politicians involved, holding this meeting “in an undisclosed location” (in the words of Rep. Tim O’Neal) will most likely do more harm than good in terms of finding answers. Why? Because as of now three theoretically possible contributing sources to the cancer cluster exist: an old uranium processing facility located Canonsburg that was remediated 30 years ago, a contaminated industrial site in Cecil Township known as the ABB property, and industrial activity from natural gas drilling operations throughout the region.
To be clear, these are only three possible sources discussed among members of the community with no scientific evidence to back anything up. The scientific method requires eliminating potential causes and then examining what remains to determine the actual cause of the problem, but that’s never going to happen here. Because of the massive political pressure involved, the stakeholders have taken natural gas operations off the table as a possible source of the cancer cluster.
State Rep. Tim O’Neal Screws Up By Telling the Truth (Part 1)
This gem from State Representative Tim O’Neal tells you all you need to know:
“Personally, the little I know about it, I find it an unlikely potential cause [of the cancers] but I have a limited perspective,” Mr. O’Neal said of fracking. “But we should be concerned of all environmental factors throughout the region. If this leads to research needing to be done about the uranium site or the chemical site [in Cecil], we need to go down that path.”
See what he did there? In literally the same sentence, he admitted he doesn’t know anything about the cancer situation but does know that fracking is an unlikely cause. Then he immediately jumps over to the uranium site and the ABB property as potential causes despite his own admission that he doesn’t know anything about it. Doesn’t seem very scientific.
Even more curious is the fact that before Tim O’Neal was elected to the State House in 2018, he worked in the natural gas industry as a manager for CONSOL and Aqua Transfer and Oilfield Solutions Corp., a company that “offers water and frac transfer, flowback, and filtration services for the oil and gas industry.” Anyone who really knows about frac transfer and flowback water and doesn’t think the chemicals involved are a potential source of cancer is either lying or is too stupid to be taken seriously.
State Rep. Jason Ortitay posted a video to his Facebook page shortly after the original Goose in the Gallows post about the lack of attention given to the cancer cluster in which he talks about the uranium site while refusing to even say the words “oil and gas” as part of his update.
And State Senator Camera Bartolotta has yet to make any public statements on the issue, but her long history of lashing out at anyone who questions her worldview that the only byproducts of fracking are rainbows and campaign donations suggest she isn’t interested in a very scientific process.
“Picket for Public Information” Planned for Senator Bartolotta’s Office
The total lack of trust in these politicians, all of whom were elected with significant financial support from the oil and gas industry, has spurred some residents into action. The Center for Coalfield Justice is holding a “Picket for Public Information” on Tuesday, April 23, 2019, beginning at 11:45 AM at Bartolotta’s District Office located at 95 W. Beau Street in Washington, PA. More information on the protest, which is not affiliated with this site, can be found here.
These politicians are not interested in finding the truth about the source of the cancer cluster; they are interested in finding a scapegoat to divert attention away from the genuine possibility that their beloved oil and gas industry may be to blame. Their dream scenario would be to find just enough of a theoretical causal connection to the uranium site that they could claim they “found the problem” before writing a very polite letter to the NRC and DOE asking them to look into it more closely. Then they could tell everyone “It’s a federal issue, there’s nothing more we can do. Sorry (not sorry).”
“But Won’t the DEP Keep the Politicians Honest?” How Adorably Naive.
Yeah, but what about the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)? Shouldn’t their involvement give the public confidence that public health concerns will outweigh political considerations? Uh, not so much.
Although nominally better than former Governor Tom Corbett, who may have gargled with frac fluid before bed at night, environmentalists claim Governor Tom Wolf has allowed the oil and gas industry to operate with virtual immunity, especially in areas of southwest Pennsylvania like Washington County. Accordingly, his DEP reflects this philosophy and has long been considered more of an ally of the industry than an objective regulator.
Here’s the headache for the Wolf administration. Any legitimate inquiry into the cause of the cancer cluster must by definition include taking a hard look at the myriad of wells, wastewater impoundments, compressor stations, processing plants, pipelines, and the rest of the industrial infrastructure related to oil and gas development in Washington County. There’s just no way around it because you can’t preemptively dismiss a potential cause on the sole basis of wishful thinking.
So if the DEP properly investigates, they are going to have to admit that fracking is a possible source of a child cancer cluster. That’s a major deal with national and international implications and the Sum of All Fears for the oil and gas industry, who will likely do anything to avoid that headline from ever seeing the light of day. Twisting the arms of a few state legislators they paid to put into office is nothing; after all, what’s the point of buying toy soldiers if you aren’t going to pretend to let them go to war once in a while?
Tom Wolf doesn’t want that headline on his watch, especially in light of recent headlines claiming his administration intervened on behalf of the oil and gas industry to fast-track natural gas pipeline projects. So the only solution is never to let the DEP be stuck in a position where they would have to make that admission in public; hence, a closed-door meeting.
State Rep. Tim O’Neal Screws Up By Telling the Truth (Part 2)
If you think this is all a little bit too much of a tin foil hat conspiracy, listen again to the words of State Rep. Tim O’Neal, who hastily posted a video response to criticism about the private nature of the meeting:
So here’s the question my three-year-old would know enough to ask. If this meeting is about finding the cause of the cancer cluster and not a political agenda, what is going to be discussed that the public can’t hear you speak openly and freely about? There is only one possible answer, and we all know what that is.
The problem for lawmakers and the DEP is that there is no easy way to absolve the oil and gas industry from any responsibility here. The timeline of industry development in Washington County coincides a bit too neatly with the emergence of the cancer cluster. If the uranium site was the problem, why did cases of Ewings Sarcoma start showing up 30 years after the federal government remediated the site with regular testing? Additionally, the widespread geographical footprint of the oil and gas industry makes it a much more likely factor than the ABB site, which has its problems but is confined to a relatively small area.
For the record, DEP is no stranger to presenting misleading facts to lawmakers on the subject of the environmental impacts of oil and gas operations. In 2014, I was invited to one of these “closed door meetings” as a State Legislator and told I was forbidden from taking photos or video. When they showed a slide to lawmakers falsely claiming there was no evidence of water contamination from fracking operations, I snapped a picture with my phone and told them they’d have to physically remove the device from me if they wanted the photo erased.
For the record, there were ABSOLUTELY verified reports of water contamination from drilling operations by this point in 2014. The DEP was straight-up lying to lawmakers, and most of them were more than happy to play along because it gave their own lies a stamp of authenticity when repeated to their constituents and the media.
Need further proof? Here is a short video clip I quietly shot during the meeting of then-State Senator and Perpetual Oil and Gas Industry Stooge Tim Solobay following the unwritten script about how useful all of the misinformation from the DEP was since now he could say he met with the DEP and they told him the “truth.” It was just gross.
Also, let’s not forget that this is the same DEP who conspired with the oil and gas industry to mislead residents into thinking their water was not contaminated by deliberately not testing for the carcinogens that would indicate contamination. In short, the PA DEP is indicative of most regulatory agencies in the Trump Era- unless you live in a place where the residents have enough money to grease the skids politically to keep the ugliness out of their back yards, enforcement of environmental regulations is a pipe dream (or in this case, a pipeline dream).
And yes, some municipal officials will be in attendance at the secret meeting who see the Big Picture and do have the best interests of the people at heart, but it doesn’t matter. If someone repeats what is said behind closed doors and the DEP or whoever else denies saying it, then we’re stuck in a classic “he said/she said” loop. A lack of evidence makes the facts debatable, which is precisely where so many of the political and policy arguments involving the energy industry ultimately end up. It’s PsyOps 101, which has been going on in Washington County from almost the moment the first well was drilled nearly 15 years ago.
The Solution? Forget the Politicians- Let’s Have Our Own Meeting on the Cancer Cluster.
So where does that leave the families of current victims and the thousands of nervous parents who are terrified their kids will be next? As a parent with no knowledge of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans, I’d be suspicious; as a parent with first-hand knowledge of the kinds of behind-the-scenes shenanigans taking place, there is no way I trust anything coming out of this secret meeting.
An important fact to remember is that nobody made these state legislators the gatekeepers for information about this cancer cluster. Bartolotta, O’Neal, and Ortitay are at best ill-informed and in all likelihood fatally tainted by political entanglements with the oil and gas industry. They simply cannot be trusted to serve as objective facilitators on this issue, nor should they be treated as such. The tone-deaf decision to move the meeting to an “undisclosed location” to hide from their constituents is all the proof anyone should need.
A few weeks ago, I made a Facebook Live video in response to Tim O’Neal’s original comments in the Post-Gazette (SPOILER ALERT: I may have dropped a few f-bombs) in which I suggested we should hold our own public meeting on this subject.
In response, a large number of people commented in our “Washington County PA Cancer Cluster Information” Facebook Group that they would be very interested in organizing and/or attending such a meeting. So we are in the planning stages of putting together a meeting by the public and for the public about the potential causes of the cancer cluster and what we should be expecting and demanding from our elected leaders and regulatory agencies at all levels of government. The meeting is still in the early planning stages as a Steering Committee is formed, but if anyone has ideas for potential speakers including environmental experts and medical professionals, please join our Facebook group by clicking the button below. The group is closed to protect the privacy of the members, so you will have to ask to join, but our policy is to let anyone in that is a real person who doesn’t spam with unrelated posts.
As far as how the politicians will fit into our public meeting, they will be invited to attend, but they will have to park their asses in the audience like everyone else. After the way they have mishandled this issue so far, they’re not using our platform for political grandstanding. Obviously there will be much more on this meeting as details start to come together, but the goal is to be as open and inclusive as possible in terms of public input without letting it turn into a free-for-all.
Sunlight May Not Cure Cancer, But it’s the Best Disinfectant We’ve Got for Now
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously stated, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Were Brandeis alive today, I am sure he would be the first to acknowledge that when it comes to a legitimate public health crisis like a child cancer cluster, we need all the disinfectants we can get.