How many more of my friends have to die before the state takes action?

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As many of you have been following, the Department of Health of the great State of Pennsylvania held a public meeting at Canon-McMillan High School last night, October 7th, to discuss the methodology used to draw up their report, which concluded that there is no cancer cluster within the district. 

Residents across the community have been working tirelessly to try to persuade our elected officials to serve us and get answers as we continue to lose people - children - to a variety of cancers including one of the rarest, Ewing’s Sarcoma. 

As many of our followers know, I am a 2015 graduate of Canon-McMillan High School. This issue is so close to my heart that I changed my career path and sought work in environmental justice because I feel so wholeheartedly that what is happening in our backyards is the issue of our time here in southwestern Pennsylvania. 

For centuries, we have systematically been swallowed up and spit back out by companies doing fossil fuel extraction. The industry takes from us until there is nothing left to take. When we are no longer deemed "profitable,” we are burdened with the responsibility of cleaning up the mess created by industry and suffering the severe economic bust. All the while, our elected officials serve industry in the name of “economic prosperity,” aiding hedge fund companies that don’t have our interests in mind.

In an effort to answer residents, State Representatives O’Neal and Ortitay asked the DOH to conduct a study on our school district in the spring of this year. Conveniently, the DOH announced that we did not constitute a “cancer cluster” 24 hours before our representatives were holding a “private” cancer cluster meeting with UPMC doctors and affected families who were only invited after we organized and demanded they let impartial residents into the room. Our discomfort with the manner in which they were handling the meeting was due to the fact that both Ortitay and O’Neal are friends of industry, as evidenced through their voting records and through their campaign financing.  

After the DOH announcement of no cancer cluster in April, through organizing and community building, residents uncovered that three cases of Ewing’s Sarcoma in the community were not included in the study. 

The DOH gave a presentation yesterday at Canon McMillan High School that showed complex tables of statistical significance. While their report certainly showed an increase in Ewing’s cases, and a 125% increase in bone cancer prevalence in the region since 2005, they insisted there was no reason to be alarmed. Their presentation had not been updated to include the cases that were left out of the report, and they told us that there are higher numbers of childhood cancers in Allegheny County so we shouldn’t be concerned. Allegheny County is 5.7 times larger than Washington County. 

We wanted the Department of Health to conduct another study that included all of the cases and expanded beyond Canon McMillan School District. Concerned parents and those who have experienced loss lined up with a series of questions for the DOH in an effort to show that we are not only angry and disheartened by the wall we seem to be running up against, but that we are afraid. The DOH told us they wouldn't answer any questions that were not specific to the research they conducted. I suppose this was their way of saying there are “no fracking concerns.” 

Kurt and Janice Blanock at Canon McMillan High School 10-7-19; “It should seem obvious with an ounce of common sense, sincere heartfelt concern, and true courage that we need to be looking at environmental triggers.”- Janice Blanock

Kurt and Janice Blanock at Canon McMillan High School 10-7-19; “It should seem obvious with an ounce of common sense, sincere heartfelt concern, and true courage that we need to be looking at environmental triggers.”- Janice Blanock

By the time the DOH cut off questions and ended the meeting, I was feeling very overwhelmed. As I stood in my alma mater, the rush of memories of the loss we felt when Luke was diagnosed overcame me. I was sitting in the cafeteria when we found out that Luke had a tumor in his back the size of a baseball, and we all wondered in fear why we never saw it or felt it as we huddled for the alma mater during basketball games. I can’t stop the replay in my head. When Mitch was diagnosed, the idea that this was all so rare that we shouldn’t be afraid was completely gone. Our generation lives in fear, afraid of every bump and ache in our bodies. 

I don’t want to have to beg government bureaucrats to care about us. I am sick of pleading for our existence. 

I want to ask the Governor himself, how many more of my friends have to die before he stops trading political deals to protect the natural gas industry at the expense of my community? 

 Yesterday’s meeting proved that they don’t plan to pay much regard to our concerns. They only took a few questions from the audience, they didn't take responsibility for the mistakes in their report, and they refused to acknowledge any of the environmental concerns in our community or across the state. 

Since calling on the DOH to study the Canon McMillan School District, the representatives have secured a $100,000 grant to fund UPMC for genetic research of Ewings Sarcoma. They have offered radon testing kits to residents of Canon-McMillan to help “ease our concerns,” and they’ve called on the National Institute of Health to conduct research on Ewing’s. 

None of these actions address the fact that the natural gas industry is expanding and developing, with fewer regulations, right in our backyards. Genetic research nor broad national research is going to look at the chemicals and radium that are being spewed into our drinking water sources and into our air. It doesn't take a PhD to realize that when something is occurring in a given space, it’s imperative to take a look at what is happening in said space. We do not have time for 20 more years of research before we acknowledge that something is wrong. How many more kids have to die or families have to suffer before we take this impact seriously? 

Instead of taking precautions, our representatives are aiding the natural gas industry in developing and expanding, with fewer regulations and more state support. EQT and Range are bragging across our communities about expanding and building “super well pads”. Industry is experimenting here to get to the Utica formations of shale gas. Our legislators are supporting pipeline infrastructure from our backyards to the cracker plant in Beaver county, where they’ll be producing petrochemicals - plastic - with our natural gas that we have supposedly been drilling to support energy independence and patriotism. Just two weeks ago, a plethora of our elected officials, among both parties, stood behind the Marcellus Shale Coalition as they discussed how “great” the shale industry has been for our community. 

We will not allow our elected officials to ignore our right to a healthy environment. They will not mislead us into believing they are respecting our concerns and serving us by dancing around the issue. Shale gas development has proven to be a risk and it is not an alarmist stance to demand that something has got to change here.  

We couldn't trust the green flags of industry or the State when our grandparents were playing baseball on the Strabane uranium site, and we can’t trust them now. We certainly shouldn't be dumping, and developing, more in the name of economic prosperity whenever we can't keep track or pinpoint triggers from the "economic prosperity" legacy costs of the past. We need to come together and demand better, healthier, and more sustainable investments in our region. We have the technology to be better, and I am not going to rest and accept these empty protections from our elected officials.  I hope you will join me in fighting for our communities and our future. 

For more information regarding this issue, a listening ear,or to talk through all of this,  you can contact me at heaven@coalfieldjustice.org or 724-229-3550 Ext. 103. 

Below is news coverage of the event: 

https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2019/10/07/public-hearing-held-in-canonsburg-to-ask-officials-about-spike-of-cancer-cases/

https://www.post-gazette.com/news/health/2019/10/04/Pennsylvania-Health-meeting-Monday-Ewing-sarcoma-Canon-McMillan-deaths/stories/201910040038

https://observer-reporter.com/news/localnews/department-of-health-explains-cancer-cluster-results-parents-concerned-groups/article_f8aea092-e932-11e9-ace0-1f7ba421c309.html

https://www.wpxi.com/news/top-stories/parents-call-for-action-doh-holds-public-meeting-over-cancer-cases-in-washington-co/994490866?utm_source=homestream&utm_medium=site_navigation&utm_campaign=homestream_click

https://observer-reporter.com/news/localnews/health-department-to-explain-report-on-childhood-cancers/article_8b381c94-e56f-11e9-95f9-5f1d7f95690e.html

https://www.bizjournals.com/pittsburgh/news/2019/10/07/canon-mac-parents-want-deeper-investigation-cancer.html