By Bill Clutter
Tucked under the rug at the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) is a scandal that has received scant attention. For years, cancer victims in the town of Taylorville, IL, have been seeking answers to why so many of its children have been stricken with cancers. State law requires IDPH to investigate threats to public health related to environmental exposure to hazardous substances. Instead of investigating the cause of the cancers the state health agency colluded with polluters to cover-up Taylorville's childhood cancer epidemic. In 1985, county health officials in Taylorville discovered widespread coal tar contamination next to a public park from an old coal gasification facility that had been abandoned by Central Illinois Public Service Co. (CIPS) in the 1930s. Two years later, in 1987, the utility was allowed by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) to conduct its own cleanup of the site, without strict government oversight under a business friendly program called the Voluntary Cleanup Program. The program allowed industry to avoid more expensive cleanup costs under the federal and state Superfund programs. Like early efforts to abate asbestos, CIPS' cleanup of the Taylorville coal tar site created a worse problem by agitating the contaminants and creating airborne releases that exposed the community to toxic carcinogens. Making matters worse, a grossly contaminated pit was left open for over two years, while the IEPA and CIPS argued over whether additional cleanup of the site should be performed.
By the time the site was finally backfilled with clean soil in 1989, Zachary Donaldson, a newborn infant, was diagnosed with a rare childhood cancer called neuroblastoma. By the end of the year, two more infants from Taylroville, Erika May and Chad Hryhorysak were diagnosed with the same disease. Late of 1990, one of the mothers, Brenda May notified IDPH of the cancer epidemic. By June of that year, Brenda formed the Taylorville Awareness Group, known as TAG. Joined by other parents and concerned citizens, TAG pressed IDPH to conduct an investigation into the cause of their children's cancers. TAG invited officials from IDPH, the IEPA, and CIPS to answer questions at a public forum which they had scheduled for June 28. All three of the invited guests were no-shows. A few weeks later, on July 18, TAG again hosted another informational meeting. This time company officials from CIPS, the IEPA and IDPH came to Taylorville. They faced a crowd of 200 concerned citizens.
The day before this meeting, I made a call to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) in Atlanta. ATSDR is the federal agency that evaluates health threats from hazardous waste sites. The agency was created in 1980, when Congress enacted the Superfund program. The person I spoke to gave me a lead about another community where citizens were in the process of petitioning ATSDR to conduct a health study of a hazardous waste incinerator in Morgan City Louisiana, where five children were diagnosed with neuroblastoma. I followed up the lead with some phone calls to Louisiana. Soon, I was on the phone with an environmental consultant by the name of Wilma Subra, who was working with the families of the cancer victims there. She explained that in the mid 1980s a politically connected businessman obtained a permit to incinerate oil field waste. Because he was burning oil field waste, exempt under RCRA -- Congress decided in 1980 that the oil industry was too important to national security and to the nation's economy, following the Arab Oil Embargo to impose costly environmental regulations that could weaken domestic oil and gas production--the company was able to burn the goop without having to meet RCRA emission control standards. Typically, hazardous waste incinerators are required to have a 99.9% burn efficiency. The company, Marine Shale Processors (MSP), then switched to burning coal tar and creosote, and claimed that too, was exempt from regulation as a hazardous waste. The smoke stack belched a black, nauseating mess. Nearby residents and businesses were evacuated. Within 18 months of operation, five children in Morgan City, a town of 35,000 residents, were diagnosed with the rare childhood cancer neuroblastoma. Residents seeking answers from their government petitioned ATSDR for a health assessment.
I called Brenda May and shared what I had found. I was invited to attend the TAG informational meeting. IDPH's Chief Toxicologist, "Dr." Thomas Long got up after I spoke and discouraged making any comparisons between Taylorville and Morgan City. "Dr." Long, as he was called by his peers at IDPH, stated that there was no exposure from the CIPS site that could have harmed public health. In response to further questioning, Long said he was relying on the air monitoring report that was prepared by CIPS's engineers. IDPH officials also dismissed my suggestion that Taylorville residents petition ATSDR for a health assessment. It wasn't until months later that I discovered that there was already a health assessment that had been reviewed and approved by the USEPA and ATSDR, as part of the process for having the waste site listed for cleanup under the federal Superfund program. Yet, "Dr." Long said nothing about the report. The health assessment had been completed by the Illinois Department of Public Health under a cooperative agreement with the federal government. In August of 1990, the USEPA listed the CIPS site as a federal Superfund site after months of review. The ill-fated efforts by CIPS to cleanup the site in 1987 fell far short of protecting public health.
A year before the cancer controversy, a CIPS official was led to believe that the health assessment would be helpful to CIPS, based on his discussions with Long. On June 6, 1990, a week after Brenda May notified IDPH of the three infants who were undergoing chemotherapy treatment, one of Long's subordinates mailed a copy of the health assessment to the Taylorville public library, ensuring the report's release to the public. However, after CIPS complained to IDPH officials that the report contained misinformation, the person responsible for having released the report was replaced as the reviewer of the Taylorville health assessment and was re-assigned to other duties within the agency. Far from being helpful to CIPS, the health assessment filed at the public library proved one of the essential elements of causation -- that exposure in fact preceded the onset of the cancer epidemic. The report concluded that a large population surrounding the site had been exposed to volatile gases and dust-laden carcinogens during CIPS’s voluntary cleanup of the site in 1987. The report stated: "The area to the north of the site is residential and heavily populated. This population has been exposed to site contaminants through contaminated surface soils (including dust-entrained contaminants) and volatilized products, largely as the result of limited remedial action on the part of CIPS." The heavily populated area north of the site was the town of Taylorville."
CIPS bitterly protested the report's conclusion that residents had been exposed toxic gases and dust. In earlier discussions with company officials, Long had assured CIPS that they would have a chance to review the report before releasing it to the public in order to avoid any "misunderstandings." At the TAG meeting on July 18, (the day after receiving the written comments of CIPS), "Dr." Long agreed with CIPS, and announced there was no exposure to the community that could have caused these rare cancers, based on the air monitoring CIPS' conducted at the site. CIPS successfully lobbied the state health department to re-write the health assessment. The conclusion that the community had been exposed to volatile gases and contaminated dust was deleted from the report. The final health assessment that Dr. Long reviewed concluded that the CIPS site was an unlikely cause of the childhood cancers.
As head of the Toxicology Program at IDPH, Long was the person responsible for making sure that the agency complied with the Environmental Toxicology Act. The Act states that the toxicology program was created "to investigate threats or potential threats to the public health related to environmental exposure to hazardous substances, and to assess and study the human health effects associated with such exposure." The investigation that "Dr." Long undertook at Taylorville was one of collusion and coverup. One Taylorville resident, Pauline Hegg, wrote letters to every state health department in the country seeking information about childhood cancers there. She even wrote a letter to First Lady Barbara Bush, appealing for help in getting ATSDR to investigate. "Dr." Long caught wind of what Pauline was doing. Long contacted his counterparts at the other state health departments, and advised them to refer her inquiries back to IDPH. In a sharply worded memo critical of Long's actions, the head of IDPHs epidemiological studies program wrote that Long's action "create the perception of collusion, secrecy and even cover-up."; "Dr." Long later left the agency after it was revealed that he had been convicted of a crime of dishonesty, and had falsely represented his academic credentials as a P.hD graduate. He was not a "Dr."
Indeed, there was collusion and cover-up going on at IDPH. The official Record of Decision of the Taylorville site drafted by Stan Black, a community relations spokesman at the IEPA, illustrates how closely IDPH and CIPS worked to influence public opinion. "Late in June of 1990, controversy erupted in the community as three area children were found to have been diagnosed with neuroblastoma . . . CIPS's former manufactured gas plant was suggested by some citizens as a possible cause of these cancers . . . the Illinois Department of Public Health and CIPS initially had difficulty conveying to concerned citizens and the media in a clear and convincing manner that the project to date had been handled in such a way that the public had not been exposed to site contaminants."
After a civil action was taken against the company, it was learned that engineers hired by the utility in 1986 warned that CIPS risked causing excess cancers in Taylorville if they proceeded to excavate the buried tanks without appropriate air pollution controls. Claude Cornett, a senior engineer who developed the air monitoring plan for the site testified: "I felt that there was a reasonable probability that if they proceeded . . . they would cause an air pollution emergency . . . and I was rather shocked to hear that, if fact, they dug in and caused such an emergency, and the evacuation of nearby residents."
I tracked down the technician who was in the field operating the air monitoring equipment during the excavation in 1987. Under oath, he admitted that the instruments had failed to accurately measure air contamination. During the excavation, he expressed concerns for the safety of nearby residents.The technician wanted to immediately relocate residents, but that decision was delayed by CIPS. According to internal company memos, the air monitoring program had been designed to defend the company against claims of exposure. "Dr." Long, the man who was among the team of officials who visited the site in Feb. of 1987, to investigate the hospitalization an elderly woman exposed to toxic air emissions after her physician notified state officials, relied on the air monitoring data he had been given by CIPS officials, even though the time and date on the strip charts were penciled in by hand, and that the chart recorders were not on-site at the time of their surprise visit, but had to be retrieved from the technician's hotel room. There was no close scrutiny of the air monitoring program by state officials.
On March 11, 1991, IDPH released its final study of the cancer cluster, which concluded: "In light of the available evidence, the most likely explanation for the three cases of infants with neuroblastoma in Taylorville is random clustering." Tom Shafer, IDPH's media spokesman announced the three cases were simply due to chance. Shafer said IDPH would watch for other cases and "will monitor the area for unusual and potentially toxic agents." As if the CIPS site never existed. A few months later, another child from Taylorville, 13 year-old Brandon Steele was diagnosed with neuroblastoma. By the time his cancer was detected, it had already reached stage IV, a fatal stage with little hope of survival. He died in New York while undergoing chemotherapy. IDPH briefly considered at the suggestion of medical professionals mass screening of Taylorville’s children, but no medical surveillance program was ever put in place.
State law requires IDPH to maintain both a cancer registry and a hazardous substances registry in order to "correlate information on public health and hazardous substances" and to "more accurately target intervention resources for communities and patients and their families . . . [and so as to] inform health professionals and citizens about risks, early detection and treatment of cancers known to be elevated in their communities." IDPH has maintained a cancer registry since 1985, but never set up the hazardous sites registry. Before the neuroblastoma controversy, IDPH had plans underway to obtain a Geographic Information System through a USEPA grant in order to correlate the location of cancer victims with their proximity to hazardous waste sites. But by 1994, the Auditor General reported that IDPH had failed to fund the hazardous substances registry, and had not implemented the GIS program. On Jan. 16, 1996, a final health assessment for the Taylroville site was released by IDPH. It had no policy purpose, since the decision had already been made to list the site for cleanup as a Superfund site. The report, released prior to the scheduled trial date was used by CIPS in court to defend itself against the complaint filed by the families. The report concluded that the CIPS site "poses no apparent public health threat . . . If data becomes available in the future that suggest human exposure to site related contaminants has increased, IDPH will re-evaluate the health concerns for these exposures." Five months after this report was released, on May 10, 1996, another Taylorville child, three-year-old Scott Brannon was diagnosed with stage IV neuroblastoma. The late stage of the disease by the time it was diagnosed could not be successfully treated. A few days after celebrating his 6th birthday, Scott Brannon lost his battle to cancer.
IDPH resisted public disclosure of the cancer registry data. The cancer registry is used by epidemiologist (scientist who use statistical comparison to study the causes of epidemics) to conduct a statistical analysis of the cases of cancer that are observed in a community compared with what would be expected. Cancer clusters that are "statistically significant" are less likely to be explained by chance or random events. IDPH had a protocol for investigating cancer clusters that required completing an observed vs expected study within 60 days after receiving a request, such as the one initiated by Brenda May. While IDPH suggested in 1990 that the three cases were likely due to chance, the agency concealed the results of the observed vs. expected study, which suggested otherwise.
The Taylorville families, represented by Springfield attorney Tom Londrigan, hired their own epidemiologist to conduct the observed vs expected study that IDPH refused to release. Dr. Shira Kramer pioneered one of the first case-control studies on neuroblastoma. Her study found that a statistically significant number of mothers who used coal tar hair dyes had children who were afflicted with neuroblastoma.
Even after being compelled by a court order, IDPH refused to release the cancer registry data to Dr. Kramer.; In 1993, IDPH's Director, Dr. John Lumpkin was held in contempt of court for his refusal to produce the cancer registry data. A year later, an appellate court affirmed the contempt order, and Dr. Lumpkin only then reluctantly released the cancer registry tapes to Dr. Kramer. After much delay, Dr. Kramer completed the observed vs expected study. Her analysis also showed higher rates of cancer located near abandoned coal tar sites throughout Illinois. On March 28, 1998, a Christian Co. jury found that the release of airborne emissions from the CIPS was the cause of the children's cancer.
But that is not the end of the story. Brenda May has requested under the Freedom of Information Act the cancer registry data for leukemia cases in Taylorville. Benzene, which was released at Taylorville, is a known cause of leukemia. The latency period is longer with adult cancer than it is for childhood cancers. A growing number of adult cases of leukemia in Taylorville have been diagnosed in recent years. IDPH's director, Dr. Lumpkin again refuses to release the cancer registry data. Last summer, he was fined and held in contempt of court in Jackson County for refusing to give out similar information to a reporter who requested it. That case is under appeal.
The intent of the Health and Hazardous Substance Registry Act is to provide "early detection and treatment of cancers known to be elevated in their communities." How much longer will victims of cancer in Christian Co. have to wait before Dr. Lumpkin and IDPH comply with the law? How many more must wait until the painfully futile and fatal stage IV cancer develops before they are provided medical treatment. How many more cancer victims must there be before something is done?
Original Publish Date: April 13-19 2000, Illinois Times
“This is a classic story with very good good-guys and very bad bad-guys, a tale of corporate greed, lethal pollution and sick children and the heroic people who fought to make things right.
A wonderful read” --Scott Turow.
About The Author
Bill Clutter is a private investigator who started his career in Springfield, Illinois. Clutter got his start as a private investigator by serving the complaint filed by Africans-Americans who alleged that the old commission form of city government elected city-wide, violated the Voting Rights Act in the hometown of Abraham Lincoln. Clutter was elected in 1987 as the first Ward One Alderman in the City of Springfield. Also elected that year to the new aldermanic government were two African-Americans. The attorney who filed that lawsuit also initiated the lawsuit against CIPS.
In 2001, Clutter started the Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois at Springfield. His investigation on two death penalty cases contributed to the exoneration of three innocent men who were among the 20 innocent men who were freed from death row in Illinois. The Chicago Tribune credited Clutter, among others, for the abolition of the death penalty in 2011.