What's on your mind blog

Community Health in Southwestern Pennsylvania

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This blog was written by a concerned and engaged CCJ member and retired nurse who attended Monday night’s community meeting at the Canon-McMillan High school. With her permission, we are sharing her comments with you as the 5th in our What’s on your mind? series.

“Well, to say that the October 7 community meeting at Canon-McMillan HS was disappointing would be an understatement. 

In my view, whether they meant to disclose it or not, the speakers’ slides clearly indicated their awareness of factors warranting further investigation and identified limitations in their data collection criteria. They are aware of gaps in their assessment process. However, rather than acknowledge that their data collection criteria and CDC guidelines need to be revisited for their continued relevance (given the guidelines are 31 years old), they used those weaknesses as a defense for the conclusions they had drawn. I’m not sure how both the CDC and the DOH can justify not exploring opportunities for improvement in such important processes.  

The comments and questions from the audience focused almost exclusively on Ewing’s sarcoma rather than the increase in cancer types collectively, on fracking rather than all area pollution sources, of which there are many (including the long-standing radiation storage sites), and on chastising the DOH. However, given their role and expertise, the DOH could not be expected to address the impact of the multifaceted activities of the natural gas industry on the environment, as that is not their role.

We are seeing a clear inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to control pollution from many sources. Unfortunately, there has been no investment of time or resources to go by the precautionary principle, which could have protected many of us from the harms to public health and the environment. 

There is plenty of blame to go around: the DOH, the natural gas industry, the U.S. Department of Energy, local legislators, Washington and Greene County Commissioners, and the Washington County Chamber of Commerce – all of whom are steadfast in their support of the natural gas industry (see recent Observer-Reporter article by Jeff Kotula, President of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce; Letter to the Editor in support of the oil and gas industry by Diana Irey Vaughan, Washington County Commissioner; Senator Camera Bartolotta’s endless touting of anything industry-related; the newly-approved Greene County Comprehensive Plan. Also, notice the difference between the local Washington Observer-Reporter and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper coverage – the list goes on…)

Most cancers tend to manifest over time. It appears there is enough evidence at this point to warrant a proactive approach via aggressive research rather than react when the incidence numbers meet CDC guidelines.  Like it or not, nothing of substance will be done to ban polluting sources until that elusive cause-and-effect is uncovered. I believe the panel should have included additional speakers who can support the need for a comprehensive science-based air, water, and soil assessment. 

I am hopeful that Monday evening’s event, if nothing else, brought sufficient attention to the DOH Registry’s shortcomings and will prompt a comprehensive review. I’ve found over the years that crises can serve as a catalyst for change. 

I do want to add how appreciative many of us are that you [CCJ] are advocating for the residents of Washington and Greene Counties, especially the families who are suffering the consequences of these polluting industries - especially when all around us, accommodations are being made to court and support these companies and to defend their activities, though they threaten public health and welfare.”

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: 







On retirement, and keeping in mind the words of Margaret Mead

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The Heinze family

Thank you to Rick Heinze, a CCJ member and supporter, for this contribution to our What’s on your mind? blog series!

It’s a little frustrating that my retirement activities aren’t what I dreamed they would be. In my dreams, I was going to visit exotic places, improve my birding skills, learn to play the banjo I bought 25 years ago at a garage sale, take interesting college courses on the internet (e.g., western PA history), and learn to throw my atlatl. The rest and relaxation that I had earned through working in my younger years would now become my life. 

I have always considered myself an environmentalist. I saved water, recycled items, bought a car that gets good gas mileage, reduced/reused/recycled, and took part in other actions that I hoped would make the world a better place. Then the climate crisis became real, and it was obvious that doing those activities was not nearly enough. The Paris Accords, the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and many other scholarly studies and discussions on the climate made this abundantly clear. I could no longer rest and relax during my retired life knowing that the planet my grandchildren were to grow up on would be so dramatically different than the nature and the outdoors that I had so loved during my own life. For example, millions of people will be (and are being) uprooted from their homes. Others will no longer be able to grow food because of the warming environment and the uncertainty of rain (or an excess of rain).

So I decided that, for the sake of my precious granddaughter and the children of her generation, I must get more involved in teaching people about this crisis and helping them to understand that, though we thought this crisis would happen 30 years from now, we are already experiencing it. I have always done the easier things, such as educating myself on climate change and donating money to the right causes (CCJ, Sierra Club, Climate Reality). But, as we are learning, this is not enough. Money is helpful, but our time is precious! I am trying to get out there and become really involved in supporting the changes that will be necessary to reverse or slow down the damage we have caused. I am doing things that I am not comfortable doing, such as running in an election and knocking on doors in my community so that I can talk to people. Right now I’m trying to build up the courage (and find some support) in order to picket my state senator’s office after her party passed some very troubling legislation which will increase water pollution in our area. Will any of my activities matter? Who knows, but I have to try. I can only hope that anthropologist Margaret Mead was right in her assertion that we should “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  With the support of CCJ and you, I can become a committed citizen and hopefully make a positive difference!

Can We Really Afford the Affordable Clean Energy Rule?

This contribution to our What’s on your mind? blog series was written by Alexandra Cheek, a CCJ intern and geology student who is finishing up her degree at California University of Pennsylvania:

It seems as if the current administration has found its replacement for the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan in the Affordable Clean Energy Rule. Before I get into the details of how this plan may affect the country, here’s a little background:

  • On August 3rd of 2015 President Obama announced the Clean Power Plan (CPP).

    • The goal of this action was to provide “...strong but achievable standards for power plants, and customized goals for states to cut the carbon pollution that is driving climate change, the Clean Power Plan provides national consistency, accountability and a level playing field while reflecting each state’s energy mix.”

    • The plan provided a model for states to cost-effectively lower emissions to the standards, with the option for states to submit their own plans with EPA approval.

    • The EPA welcomed comment from states regarding how to finalize a single plan types that would be best or every state.

  • On March 28th of 2017 Trump signed an Executive Order on Energy Independence, putting the Clean Power Plan under review.

    • In October of 2017 the repeal of the CPP began and following public hearing it was finally repealed this past June and replaced with the Affordable Clean Energy Rule.

    • The goal of the Affordable Clean Energy Rule (ACE) is to “restore(s) rule of law, empower(s) states, and support(s) energy diversity”.

At the outset, the ACE plan actually sounds pretty great. I want my state to be empowered whatever that may mean, and energy diversity is great because there’s no single energy source that can provide sustainable and dependable energy to the entire United States. You can’t fault me for having a little healthy skepticism, though, considering the current EPA administrator Wheeler denies global climate change and previously worked as an attorney defending energy corporations.

The CPP was never actually enforced due to legal challenges, and the current administration is already facing its fair share: This week the Clean Air Task Force filed a suit on behalf of the American Lung Association and the American Public Health Association. These organizations’ biggest issues are with the increase in particulate matter that affects our most vulnerable populations, the children and elderly. The good news is that the EPA already has an obligation to protect these populations due to the Clean Air Act, the bad news is that they are redefining the standards. The Clean Air Act mandates that standards must reflect the best system of emissions reduction (BSER) for the pollutant; however, ACE has solved this problem by simply changing the BSER for power plants. The CPP used a few building blocks when it came to the BSER, one of which factored in the use of renewable energy. ACE, however, only uses onsite efficiency improvements as their BSER to establish emission standards, meaning that the emissions standard will be a lot less stringent. To put it into perspective, the goal of the CPP was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants 32% below 2005 levels by 2030, while the ACE rule is only forecasted to lower emissions by 1.5 percent at the most compared to no regulation. CPP was also our first real step towards emissions reductions as part of the Paris Agreement, which despite what President Trump might declare, we are still a part of, and cannot withdraw until 2020 (thanks to Article 28 of the Paris Agreement).

Bottom line, I turn my lights on, I drive a car. I am all for people having jobs in the energy industry. I’m also for transparency when it comes to potential human health impacts. The whole reason the CPP was ultimately stayed in Supreme Court is because a handful of energy corporations and two dozen states argued that the CPP could not regulate the amount of greenhouse gases through the Clean Air Act. Most of this claim is a result of corporations stating that the changes they would have to make would force layoffs and do more harm than good. The CPP was aggressive in its plan, but maybe that’s an indication of just how bad of shape we are in with our emissions in the first place. Global climate change is like a cancer. It’s aggressive and requires an even more aggressive treatment plan. We can’t change what we did to get to this point but we have every opportunity to change how we proceed and minimize our impacts as much as we can. That won’t happen by lowering our standards and juking the stats so that we look like we’re doing a good job.

Why is equity important to discussions of climate change?

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This contribution to our What’s on your mind? blog was written by our Outreach Coordinator Lisa DePaoli, who has studied humans and ecology for quite a long time and earned her Ph.D. in ecological anthropology:

The ways that humans are being impacted by climate change include extreme weather events such as wildfires and flooding, stresses to food-producing systems, the spread of infectious diseases, and negative impacts on biodiversity and wildlife, security, migration, and public goods such as water. In short, climate change impacts people’s health, livelihoods, and homes and other forms of property.  

Furthermore, certain people are disproportionately affected by climate change, including low-income and minority populations and other vulnerable people who are at greater risk due to age, discrimination, health, and/or location. They may have less ability to move about, pay for damages, and rebound after setbacks. Communities of color and low-income communities face an increased vulnerability because of the compounded stresses of ongoing heat waves, poor air quality, flooding, and mental health stress.

People who are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are also those who are least responsible for causing it (for example, according to a study by Oxfam, the poorest 50 percent — about 3.5 billion people — contribute only 10 percent, while the richest 10 percent of people produce half of the planet’s individual-consumption-based fossil fuel emissions). Changes in weather patterns, sea level rise, and other impacts further exacerbate existing inequities. Therefore, we must integrate questions of justice in debates about the environment. Focusing on only one part of the problem, such as “jobs,” is like treating the symptom and ignoring the cause of this unequal effect (the underlying socio-economic factors of disadvantaged populations). Actions to address climate impacts and to reduce emissions should be considered in conjunction with broader equity issues involving livelihoods and a living wage, health, food security, and energy access. The wellbeing of people and communities must be at the core of climate action.

There is a lot of discussion of possible ways to address the problem of climate change. Unfortunately, many of the ideas that have been brought forward are top-down or trickle-down in approach (e.g., placing a tax on fossil fuels). With this approach, decisions are made by a few people in authority rather than by the people who are affected by those decisions, and solutions are framed by actions and policies that are initiated at the highest levels of government. However, it has been proven over and over again that top-down and trickle-down solutions do not work. This is especially true for systems-level problems like climate change, which involves the triple bottom line of sustainability: social and cultural factors, ecology/environment, and economics. We have to consider the effects of our actions, technologies, and livelihoods on the health of both people and the environment on which we depend.

Climate action and equity issues are integrally linked and can be mutually supportive. We need to ensure fair transitions for our workers, diversify our economy, and give power to frontline communities. Meaningful change will take an active and inclusive social movement, which will accelerate momentum for climate action. 

Have something on your mind? Write about it!

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If you’ve been reading CCJ’s blogs, you know that our staff write 99% of the entries. Solid writers we may be, but blog-hogs we are not: with that in mind, we’d like to issue an open invitation for contributions to our blog!

What should I write about?

Anything! We want to know what’s on your mind, from your thoughts on the petrochemical buildout in Appalachia to your perspective on raising the minimum wage to your opinions about the judicial system. You may respond to something you see in the news, or perhaps you’ve noticed a pattern in political and social discourse. 

Can I write about anything?

Anything that’s not hateful, absolutely! CCJ does not tolerate hate - on us or anyone else - and so we kindly ask you to keep trolling to yourself. However, we do welcome a variety of opinions and encourage dialogue (because censorship sucks). 

Do I need to send this to my English-teacher friend to edit?

You can if you’d like, but CCJ staff must work with writers to edit all contributions before publication on our blog. 

When you have a blog you’d like to submit, use this link to send it our way!

Questions? Contact our Outreach Coordinator, Lisa DePaoli, at lisa@coalfieldjustice.org or 724-229-3550 ext. 101.