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Cancer cluster families: 'We're going to get some answers'

Tom Jackson • Nov 15, 2012 at 3:00 PM

"There is a human face on all of this," Keller said. "There are other faces out there. This community has to be made safe."

Kole died in April 2007, a victim of the childhood cancer cluster in Eastern Sandusky County.  

Sitting beside Keller in the Whirlpool Room at Clyde Public Library was Warren Brown, whose daughter, Alexa, died of cancer in 2009 at age 11.     

"I'm not going to make any comments," Brown said, television news cameras trained on him. "I want you to focus in on that."

He somberly picked up a photo of his daughter.

"We're going to get some answers," Brown said. "(When) Alexa lay on her death bed, I told her her death would not be in vain. We are going to get some answers."

Now, for the first time since Alexa was diagnosed with cancer and later died of the disease, her parents suspect answers are beginning to emerge about the Clyde cancer cluster.

“I feel more hopeful we’re going to at least find out the truth,” said Wendy Brown, Alexa's mother.

The Browns and other relatives of local children who have died from cancer attended the news conference in Clyde, alongside two attorneys hired to represent several of the families.

At least four young people in the Clyde area have died of cancer: Alexa in 2009; Shilah Donnersbach, 20, in 2007; Kole in 2007; and Jacob “Bubba” Andrews, 22, in March 2012.

Up to 40 children in the area have contracted cancer.  

Investigators believe they could be zeroing in on real answers.

The families' two attorneys, Alan Mortensen and Dustin Lance of Salt Lake City, reviewed new information about sites in the Clyde area that are contaminated by possible carcinogenic chemicals.

A new U.S. EPA report, posted in late October on a U.S. EPA website, shows the presence of numerous cancer-causing chemicals at the former Whirlpool Park at Township Road 187 and County Road 181 in Green Springs.

The park, built by Whirlpool in the early 1950s, had a swimming pool, playground and other amenities.  

The EPA report indicates testing uncovered a large number of PCBs — believed to be a cancer-causing agent — at the park, along with toxic metals.

Because of the findings, the EPA will have to require a cleanup, Mortensen said.

Whirlpool responds

Jeffrey Noel, Whirlpool’s vice president for communications and public affairs, said Whirlpool is eager to work with the U.S. EPA to carry out additional testing at Whirlpool Park.

The company has not yet reached an agreement with the current owner of the property.

If necessary, the company will pay for a site cleanup, he said.

“It was used as a park parcel when it was purchased,” Noel said. “Whirlpool did not knowingly expand the park on a contaminated site.

“We became aware of the findings when the EPA gave us a copy of the sampling data,” Noel said. “That was the first time we became aware there was contamination on the site.”

Whirlpool bought the park in 1953, and records show the pool had been there since 1930, Whirlpool spokeswoman Kristine Vernier said.

The park closed in 2006 and was sold in 2008, she said.

Whirlpool Clyde plant leader Dan O’Brien wrote a letter to employees, outlining steps the company has taken to carry out further testing at Whirlpool Park.

“Meanwhile, it is important to understand, that we truly believe there is no current exposure risk posed by this substance," O'Brien wrote. "As stated in U.S. EPA materials, PCBs are a very stable substance that does not readily migrate, and the use and disposal of PCBs was a common practice, and within the laws and standards of the 1950s and 1960s."

His email continued: “We continue to work toward gaining access to the site and will continue to work with state and federal agencies to abide by the law, and address the issues on the site until they are satisfactorily resolved in the best interest of the community and its residents."

Mortensen said his law firm knows Whirlpool Park was used by the company as a dump site.

“It was intentionally put there and used to landscape the park,” he said.

Noel said Whirlpool wants to carry out further testing, working with the U.S. EPA to get the facts.

“I simply can’t address a statement or speculation that somebody has provided,” he said.

According to Whirlpool records, the site was used for recreation, he said.

The attorneys also discussed other sites they believe deserve further investigation, including the Clyde city dump, where Mortensen said Whirlpool dumped much of its waste. The site has arsenic, PCBs, Boron and other potentially harmful chemicals, Mortensen said.

Raccoon Creek also goes by the dump.

“There is leachate you can still see of toxins going into Raccoon Creek,” he said.

PCBs and arsenic have been found at the Whirlpool manufacturing site, although the EPA concluded nothing needed to be done, Mortensen said.

The two attorneys emphasized they don’t know that the Clyde cancer cluster was caused by chemicals at any of the sites under review, and they do not plan to file a lawsuit unless they're sure they can assign responsibility.

“You don’t want to sue the wrong person," Lance said. "You don’t want to sue someone who’s innocent."

If answers from Whirlpool and other parties aren’t forthcoming, the attorneys said they'd file a lawsuit to give themselves subpoena power, which would force the answers in court.

The attorneys said they'll represent the families in pressing government agencies and Whirlpool Corp. for more information about the findings, and they'll carry out their own investigation as much as possible.

They announced a hotline number, 419-552-1988, which they said local residents can call to offer tips and suggestions for further investigation.

They cautioned, however, they cannot guarantee anonymity and might be forced to reveal who called with any particular bits of information.

When the preliminary results from EPA testing at Whirlpool Park were announced during the summer, Warren Brown, Alexa's father, said he doubted the park was connected to the cancer cluster.

On Wednesday, however, he indicated he wants to wait for all of the facts before expressing an opinion.

Keller, Kole's grandpa, said he was “infuriated” when the Ohio EPA came in and said there was nothing there.

Trina Donnersbach, mother of Shilah Donnersbach, also attended the news conference and held up a photo of her daughter.

The attorneys said a woman who used to live next to Whirlpool Park also contracted cancer. The woman’s dog died of cancer, too, they said.

One man who attended Wednesday's news conference said he lives next to the park — he asked if he is safe.

Mortensen said he can't answer the question, unless testing is carried out. He suggested the man ask the U.S. EPA to do tests on his property.

“I would be concerned,” Mortensen told the man.

Last year, U.S. EPA administrator Lisa Jackson promised she would come to Clyde to meet with the families affected by the Clyde cancer cluster.

Mortensen said his firm has contacted Jackson’s office and asked about the promise, and he hasn’t received a reply yet. While the families believe the U.S. EPA should carry out further testing, there’s been no commitment from the agency.

“They said that everything is finished for the time being,” Mortensen said.

The attorneys said they're experienced in handling disaster litigation.

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