More than 60 concerned citizens packed a meeting hall at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge visitor center last night to pose questions to an eight-person panel including representatives from EPA, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Department of Health (DOH), and the federal Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR). Josh Barber, the EPA’s project manager for the site, gave a brief presentation on the site’s history, the EPA’s prior cleanup efforts and data concerning soil and water contamination and related health risks. Then the panel fielded questions from attendees. The details of the EPA’s proposed remediation plan will be announced in mid-August and then be subject to a 30-day period when residents can file official comments. The Q&A last night served to gauge public concerns ahead of this announcement.
“Cancer doesn’t take a break,” said Tyrone Beverly, a long-time Eastwick resident, who also asked the panel if money had yet been allocated for the Superfund site. Barber explained that no money can be allocated until the remediation plan is approved. At that time the site would go on a list of other sites across the country and receive funding according to the level of risk associated with the current contamination. The riskiest sites get funding first. Barber said the time between a remediation plan’s announcement and the start of cleanup can be up to 36 months. Beverly and other residents think another three years is far too long to wait to fix a problem they see taking a toll on the health of the community.
One woman at the meeting said all of her four children and seven grandchildren have suffered from asthma and allergies associated with the landfill. Another woman said she believes her breast cancer was caused by exposure to the landfill’s contaminants. Linda Watson, an EPA toxicologist, and three other medical experts on the panel told residents that it’s impossible to definitively link these diseases to the contaminants in the landfill. Furthermore, the DOH’s data shows that though Eastwick residents have a higher rate of four types of cancer compared with residents statewide, this elevation is similar across all parts of the city, leading them to believe it might not be linked to the landfill. Watson said the level of contamination just barely meets the EPA’s threshold for cleanup, reaching levels, in scattered spots in the residential area and park bordering the dump, that could potentially adversely affect the health of 1 in 10,000 people who are exposed. But Watson insisted that the exposure would have to be significant and for a long time. Children would literally have to eat the contaminated soil every day for six years.
However, the EPA and DOH’s assurances that the risk to human health is low did not convince everyone that cleanup of the site is any less urgent. Tyrone Beverly said he’s skeptical that the community will see results any time soon: “There’s no money in EPA. The Republicans gutted the budget.” Other residents spoke of the persistent flooding in the neighborhood, which was caused when the landfill destroyed wetlands along the Darby Creek that acted as a natural buffer to the community. The owner of the landfill property, according to both residents and EPA, was uncooperative with cleanup and investigation efforts for many years. Different parts of the remediation effort going forward hinge on the cooperation of the responsible party with EPA, so the process could very well be lengthy.
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