EPA Meetings to Address Hometown Superfund Site
Site's neighbor wonders if grandchild's heart problem may be linked to toxins
Known locally as the "fluff piles," the 25-acre site is covered by 350 million pounds of plastic wire insulation left behind by an operation that reclaimed metal from old phone cables. The site is contaminated with lead, phthalates, PCBs and dioxin--among the most toxic chemicals known to science. In addition, tests revealed a plume of trichloroethylene running below the site, though the EPA is not addressing that contamination because it believes it's unrelated to EDM's operations.
In 2003, Nassau Metals Corp., a Lucent Technologies subsidiary, agreed in a settlement to pay $10 million to cap and monitor pile. Lucent's parent company, AT&T, supplied most of the wire processed at the site.
Five years ago, the EPA announced the final plan for site cleanup, which involves bulldozing the piles flat, covering them with plastic sheeting, topping that with dirt and planting grass on top. Many local residents oppose the plan and instead want the EPA to remove the material from the site, which is adjacent to a stream that drains into the Little Schuylkill River.
After heavy rains hit the Hometown area last month, I called former township supervisor George Pinkey to find out how the flooding affected the EDM site. Pinkey's home overlooks the fluff piles, and he and his brother Daniel, who died from cancer several years ago, were among the most outspoken advocates urging the site's cleanup.
Although the river was, as Pinkey told me, "pretty wild," he didn't notice any fluff in the water. He says the stuff tends to act like a "big sponge," absorbing rainwater that then runs off as leachate and is processed in the site's wastewater treatment plant. (Earlier this year, Tamaqua authorities rejected a request to process the leachate at their municipal wastewater treatment plant, citing concerns that the toxic material would damage the facility and necessitate expensive tests.)
Pinkey told me that his daughter--who grew up next to the fluff piles and still lives nearby in Tamaqua--had recently given birth to a baby boy with a defective heart ventricle. She was able to hold the infant only for a moment before he was whisked off to surgery, and he will have to undergo more procedures to repair the problem. At best, his heart will be able to pump at about 86 percent of the capacity of a normal heart.
The Pinkey family is now part of a study being conducted by doctors at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia to better understand this particular heart defect. While the researchers are focusing on genetic factors, Pinkey says they have also asked a lot of questions about his daughter's exposure to the toxins at the EDM site. He noted that he can smell fumes from the fluff at his house, which is a stone's throw from the Superfund site.
His grandson's serious health problem has left Pinkey wondering if he did the right thing by staying and fighting for the site's cleanup rather than moving away.
"I spent 33 years wasting my time fighting windmills," he says. "I used to think we were going to get that pile moved. I don't anymore. But capping and leaving it here is just going to create a problem for someone else down the road."