Image: McAdoo site
Carolyn Kaster  /  AP file
Joe Murphy, 41, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, left, looks out over an area that includes a Superfund site in McAdoo, Pa. More than 30 years ago, an abandoned mine in Pennsylvania's hard-coal country was turned into a repository for toxic waste. Years later, officials say the site does not pose a health hazard. But residents who live nearby seem to be getting cancer and other serious diseases in startling numbers.
updated 10/22/2007 5:56:23 PM ET 2007-10-22T21:56:23

More than 30 years ago, an abandoned mine in Pennsylvania coal country was turned into a dump for toxic waste. Lots of it.

When government officials finally shut down the site in 1979, they found nearly 7,000 storage drums, and dead birds and animals. Many of the drums were badly corroded and leaking dangerous chemicals. The Environmental Protection Agency called it the state's worst environmental hazard, placed it on the Superfund list and began a cleanup.

Years later, officials say the site does not pose a health hazard. But residents who live nearby are skeptical. They say they seem to be getting cancer and other serious diseases in startling numbers. By one unofficial estimate, 70 of 100 homes within a half-mile of the site have been touched.

This week, the government will report on a possible cluster of polycythemia vera, or PCV, a rare blood disease that has sickened dozens of people. Dr. Peter Baddick, an internist who grew up near the Superfund site and has sounded the alarm about PCV, said he expects the number of cases to be three or four times higher than what would be expected for the region.

Clusters are difficult to prove. Investigators must establish an unusually high number of cases of a specific disease within a given population and then figure out whether it can be attributed to something in the environment. Most reported clusters are found to be due to chance.

Thomas Burke, a professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University, said cluster investigations rarely yield a definitive cause. "Most clusters, even those that are significantly elevated, have not been successfully investigated to find a particular environmental link," he said.

But residents hope the report will force a re-evaluation of the safety of one of the worst toxic waste dumps in the nation — and, perhaps, focus attention on people who not only contracted PCV but also suffer from cancer, multiple sclerosis, lupus and other serious illnesses.

Is there a link to the Superfund site? The government has consistently said no. But there is no question this hardscrabble region 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia has endured one environmental headache after another.

Image: Superfund cleanup
Phil Sarno  /  Hazleton Standard-Speaker via AP
Drums of toxic waste are removed during cleanup efforts in July of 1982 at the McAdoo Associates Superfund site in McAdoo, Pa.

Land scarred by decades of coal mining. Three current or former Superfund sites, including the toxic dump, only a few miles apart. Abandoned strip mines that have been filled with coal combustion waste, a state-approved practice that an environmental group believes has led to groundwater contamination.

'Havoc and misery'
"There are a lot of people who should not be sleeping at night because they've created a lot of havoc and misery in people's lives for a few bucks," said Joe Murphy, a 41-year-old community activist diagnosed with MS in 2003.

For now, government epidemiologists are focusing on polycythemia (pah-lee-sy-THEE-mee-ah) vera, an acquired genetic mutation that thickens the blood and can result in heart attacks and strokes.

The condition, whose cause is unknown, only became reportable to state cancer registries in 2001. The government estimates it occurs in one in every 100,000 people, although some scientists believe it is even more rare. The disease, which is treatable, is more prevalent in older people and men.

The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry began looking into PCV in August 2006 after 97 cases in Schuylkill, Carbon and Luzerne counties were reported to the state cancer registry between 2001 and 2005 by doctors, hospitals and labs. Based on its population, the region should have reported about 25 cases.

The agency's task: to confirm the cases that appeared on the registry, and to search out cases the registry might have missed. Scientists also tried to find common factors among PCV patients, including their proximity to toxic waste sites.

The study is finished. The agency has scheduled a community meeting for Wednesday night to discuss its findings with the public. Agency officials would not discuss the study results ahead of meeting.

Meryl Wertman, 62, is among those looking for answers.

After his PCV diagnosis in 2003, Wertman was forced to retire early from his job as a prison guard. He stopped officiating basketball and baseball games and had to give up hunting, one of his passions, after an episode in the woods in which he was overcome with exhaustion and barely made it back to his house.

Wertman's days now are largely spent in front of the TV. "No pep," he said.

"It's hard seeing him that way, knowing how active he always was," said his wife, Linda. "He's very depressed because he can't do what he wants to do."

Something in the water?
Like many, Wertman suspects there is something in the water. His house in Tamaqua is served by the 2.7-billion-gallon Still Creek Reservoir, about a mile downhill from the chemical dump. Federal and state officials say water from the reservoir is treated and safe to drink.

Those who dumped the waste "should be responsible for everything, and I think there should be compensation to the people who went through this," Wertman said.

North of Wertman's house, along Interstate 81, there is a nondescript field surrounded by barbed wire, with several wellheads poking up out of the ground. This is where a company called McAdoo Associates began operating in 1975, its purpose to extract and recycle metals from chemical wastes.

The company accepted hundred of thousands of gallons of paint sludge, waste oils, used solvents, PCBs, cyanide, pesticides and many other known or suspected carcinogens. Four years later, when the EPA stepped in, McAdoo Associates had stockpiled enough chemicals to nearly fill an Olympic-size swimming pool.

And that was just on the surface. Jim Leber, a former state mine inspector, said he routinely saw tanker trucks pouring their contents directly into an abandoned mine shaft on the site. The ground became so saturated with chemicals that it was spongy underfoot, he said. A chemical smell hung in the air.

Image: Meryl and Linda Wertman
Carolyn Kaster  /  AP file
Meryl and Linda Wertman sit on the porch of their home in Tamaqua, Pa., earlier this month. Meryl suffers from a rare form of blood cancer called polycythemia vera.

But the EPA says that because of the geology of the region, the contaminated groundwater beneath McAdoo Associates does not pose a risk to either private wells or public water supplies. Residential wells, for example, tap into a deeper aquifer, authorities say.

Lester and Betty Kester live across the street from the reservoir. They also live downhill from McAdoo Associates. And they both have PCV — an extreme rarity.

"Almost as rare as her husband getting pregnant," said Baddick, who knows the couple. The Kesters' neighbors also report a variety of cancers, and at least one more case of PCV.

Betty, 79, is perpetually weak, exhausted and itchy, symptoms of a disease she believes she got "from them drums" up the hill.

"It's sad, it's sad," she said. "Because you don't expect this in your life. Now is when we should be having a good time, right? Instead, we're having a kick in the bum."

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