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Published: Saturday, 12/1/2012

Clyde’s cancer-cluster mystery continues, as does its pain

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE COLUMNIST

CLYDE, Ohio — Sandusky County’s unexplained cancer cluster has caused gut-wrenching emotions for years. But anger has again overridden frustration now that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found sludge with high levels of cancer-causing PCBs and other toxic chemicals in the 27-acre Whirlpool Park southwest of here.

Whirlpool Park was private land with a swimming pool when Clyde’s largest employer, Whirlpool Corp., acquired it in 1953. According to Whirlpool spokesman D. Jeffrey Noel, the corporation sent heavy equipment to the rural site six to eight times, mostly during the 1950s, to shape the park into a facility that included basketball courts, tennis courts, and meeting rooms.

Mr. Noel said raw pond or river water probably was used to fill the swimming pool during the park’s early years, a common practice of the era.

Although it was built for Whirlpool employees, the park’s admission policy was so generous that anyone who was a friend of a worker was allowed to use it. Mr. Noel said most people came to think of it as a community park because so few people were turned away.

The park stayed open until 2006, then was sold to a would-be developer, Grist Mill Creek, in 2008 for $212,000. The buyer planned to build homes on the site. But now — after learning about the pollution — its attorney is trying to get Whirlpool to buy it back.

How the park got so polluted remains a mystery. Mr. Noel said there was a good chance that much of the contamination was on site, unknown to Whirlpool, when the corporation operated it as a park. He said there are no records of Whirlpool authorizing or having knowledge of dumping there.

Sampling probes found waste nearly 10 feet deep near the basketball courts, accompanied by petroleum odors. It is not known whether the park was a dump site, or whether contaminated fill might have been used during construction activities that predated modern environmental laws, Mr. Noel said.

What galls locals is that the sampling was done only a few months ago. The U.S. EPA said it investigated Whirlpool Park after it was tipped off about the park’s past. The federal agency was looking for pollution signs the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the Ohio Department of Health, and the Sandusky County health department might have overlooked to help explain the area’s unusual cancer outbreak, which has affected children and teens in nearly 40 families.

Attorneys who represent the families question not only the thoroughness of the state-led cancer investigation that preceded U.S. EPA involvement, but also the federal agency’s decision to post its sampling results online without notifying their clients. Toxic sludge is a big deal, they argue, especially at a depth of nearly 10 feet.

At a news conference called to discuss the findings, Warren Brown held up a photo of his daughter, Alexa, who was 11 when she died of cancer in 2011.

“When Alexa lay on her deathbed, I told her, her death would not be in vain,” said Mr. Brown, the Sandusky County administrator. “We are going to get some answers.”

Steve Keller, whose grandson, Kole, was 5 when he died of cancer in 2007, fought back tears. “There’s a human face to this,” he said. Nothing infuriated him more than when state officials told Clyde-area residents in May, 2011, that they had reached an impasse.

Cancer clusters are hard enough to identify when evidence points to a source of contamination. This one didn’t. State agencies didn’t have much to go on. Even now, it’s unclear how much emphasis to put on the park or any other site.

This case goes beyond Clyde and its area. Residents across Ohio have reason to wonder what is being missed in their communities. But more than regulatory competence is at stake. State and federal officials rely heavily on industry self-reporting to protect the public’s health. They need cooperation from corporations.

Whirlpool said it will provide that. It soon plans to submit a voluntary cleanup plan to state and federal officials, Mr. Noel said.

The Clyde-area cancer investigation has been under way since 2006. Trina Donnersbach, a Clyde-area woman whose daughter, Shilah, died of cancer in 2007 at age 20, said she’s dumbfounded that families of childhood cancer victims are just now learning about the park.

She’s not the only one.

Tom Henry is an editorial writer and columnist for The Blade. Contact him at: thenry@theblade.com



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