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Tamaqua Borough, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania


Toxic waste is becoming a larger and larger problem on planet earth. In nature, one creature’s waste is another’s food. But Increasingly our waste is not biodegradable but a mix of toxic byproduct of industrial and energy production along with human and animal and medical waste. This toxicity has consequences for health of the land and its creatures. People still think there is such a place as “away” as in “throwing it away” for disposing of our waste. But it turns out “away” is in someone else’s backyard. More often than not, this backyard are poor communities, both urban and rural, where folks don’t have clout to fight the dumping. Here’s what one such place decided to do.

SLUDGE DUMPING THREATENS TAMAQUA

Tamaqua is a town or borough of about 7000 people 100 miles west of Philadelphia, in eastern Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. According to its residents, the word “Tamaqua” is a Native American name for “running water” although others say it means “Land of the Beaver.”  Either way, on certain days the rivers that do run through town turn an oily yellow orange color from the toxic run off that remains from mining, and no beavers have been sighted near these waters for years. Tamaqua is situated within the Pennsylvania Coal Region section of the Appalachian Mountains. In the Tamaqua area, coal mining was an extremely vital economic activity throughout the 20th century but has since experienced a decline. What remains are gigantic pits, in some cases twice the size of the town itself. Take a look at Google Earth and you will see the pits as large black oblong blemishes.

In the last few years the owners of these pits have made them available to companies outside the state for the dumping of sludge. This practice turns out to be rampant in quite a number of Pennsylvania locations. Some of the sludge comes from New York and New Jersey, and combines human waste with hospital waste and chemical waste from industries. This product contains many toxic substances in this product that has euphemistically been renamed “Biosolids.”  In rural areas, farmers are encouraged to use the stuff as fertilizer and are often offered it free. Its transportation and dumping is a highly profitable business, often with mob connections. That this sludge harms the environment is evident from the dead zones it has caused in the oceans, which finally spurred on enough of an uproar that the practice was stopped. Now the sludge is either sprayed on the land or dumped in pits and loosely covered up with chemicals that leach into the aquifers and rivers and reservoirs, practices banned in other countries, such as Canada and Europe.

In Tamaqua moreover, the proposed dumping is three fold, including sludge, river dredge and fly ash and there are no protections being offered against the leaching. The runoff would go into the rivers like the Wabash and Panther Creeks that run by Tamaqua homes and join the Little Schuylkill River that feeds the larger Schuylkill that supplies Philadelphia. If this goes forward, a lot of people could be drinking contaminated water.

A local grassroots group called “The Army For A Clean Environment” which has over a thousand members, formed to fight the dumping and promote a safe environment. They had hearings with the Department of Environmental Protection, about sludge dumping, which gave people a chance to ask questions. This is how people found out that Lehigh Coal and Navigation wanted to start filling the coal pits with fly ash as well. Fly ash is residual waste from the coal regeneration plant. It is a fine powdery substance, which would turn the old mine pits into unlined landfills for toxic waste and coat the town with poisonous dust.

Department of Environmental Protection officials have made public statements to the effect that biosolids and fly ash are not harmful and that Tamaqua should feel grateful for local income as the dumpers were offering the borough a dollar for every ton of fly ash dumped. The residents of Tamaqua and surrounding boroughs are not so easily persuaded, especially as they’ve put up with years of stalling on other pollution issues, as well as years of indifference to rising incidences of disease in their township associated with environmental pollution.

One such resident is Cathy Miorelli, a Registered Nurse who works at the local public high school. She and her husband were both born in this town. She is a diminutive woman, mother of two teenage boys and a registered Republican. Aware of the recurring illnesses among her students, as well as the high incidence of various forms of cancer, thyroid problems and muscular dystrophy in her vicinity, Cathy returned to college for a master’s degree in Nursing with a specialty in community health. As part of her degree she conducted a study to examine this spike in the local disease rate, as no in-depth research into the illnesses in Tamaqua had been conducted. Spurred on by Dr. Peter Baddick, who practices Internal Medicine in nearby Packer Township, she made a survey, concentrating on one road, and found a few cohorts to help in the collecting of data. One disease they discovered has proliferated is a cancer called Polycythemia Vera, which Dr. Baddick thinks it related to leukemias and maybe to the industrial toxin, benzine.

TAMAQUA TARGETED IN THE PAST

Cathy knew all too well that her region contains a plethora of sources of toxic exposure. Within miles are three superfund sites, McAdoo Associates, Tonolli Corp. and Eastern Diversified Metals. This latter site created further contamination with dioxin following a massive fire in 1977, when a pile of polyvinyl chloride waste burned for two weeks. There are also industrial facilities such as Air Products, Silberline Manufacturing and the J.E. Morgan Knitting Mills, a number of waste coal burning power plants. Stonewalled by the State’s Department of Health and the DEP, she decided to up her participation in her community and ran for local supervisor. As people already knew her from her work at the high school, and already respected her, she was elected.

CATHY: I have always been concerned about those that don’t have a voice.  I got involved for fear of my own children and their safety, wanting the air and water to be safe for them and for all the children in the school. I ran for office because I wasn’t happy with what was being done, or not being done and too many officials just want to take care of their friends.

In her capacity as council member, Cathy was in a position to know more about plans for dumping in Tamaqua and she also felt she had a platform to oppose these practices on behalf of her community.

Earlier Dr. Baddick had introduced her to a fellow named Joe Murphy as someone who could help. Joe, whose family has lived in the area for 5 generations, is a heavy set man, very articulate and informed, in part because he has had to be.  He was always civic minded, but his level of involvement increased dramatically after he was diagnosed with MS in 2003. When he found out how much MS there is in the vicinity, and how much cancer, a whole universe opened up. Why were they experiencing such elevated illness levels?  Was it connected with this legacy of illegal dumping?
Joe started researching and found that this area had long been notorious for “midnight dumpers” emptying loads and leaving. People who ran these businesses did not have much moral compass in the way they treated workers and the land.  As Joe puts it, the thinking was “mind over matter: Their motto was ‘as long as I don’t mind, you don’t matter. It is scary that a few people making bucks can create misery for a lot of people. And now here’s a whole new bunch of industries, get pennies on the dollar for getting rid of waste that will leave their markers in our bodies.

He also researched the volatile toxic byproducts of industry in the nearby abandoned toxic waste sites that the EPA’s Superfund program were supposed to clean up. Among the chemicals are arsenic, lead, cadmium, zinc, chromium, manganese, trichloroethylene, mercury, PCBs, vinyl chloride and more. These chemicals were remediated with other chemicals like lie, and covered up with a coating of earth and grass.

Joe Murphy, along with a local physician, Dr. Peter Baddick, who practices internal medicine in Packer County, 12 miles away, spent years struggling with state bureaucracies of the Department of Health and Department of Environmental Protection, working to alert them to high incidence of cancer and other diseases that spiked around the superfund site where McAdoo Associates used to be. He was told that there is no way this site could have contaminated residential wells or the reservoir and that Joe and his physician colleague, just didn’t know what they were talking about. Then a few years later, the agency  admitted there was a spike in disease but asserted that it was a matter of “lifestyle and occupation.” Two years later again, when they finally got through to an epidemiologist, they were told their analysis had been correct all along, and that the agency was not analyzing their own stats correctly. The attitude was “you’re right but hey, we did the best we could.” This experience has taken all Joe and many other citizens’ trust that anyone will look out for them.
JOE: There’s no brass ring to come out and investigate – only to facilitate the bureaucracy. People think these departments are out there to look out for us, that they will be doing their job of protecting us, but it’s not the case.

Cathy and Joe thought that if they could demonstrate that the local cancer cluster is linked to the toxic contamination, maybe they could at least stop the current dumping. At this point she got elected to the borough council and thought if she made enough noise, changes would happen. Instead she found her fellow members happy to take the word of the various state agencies and corporate officials. One member of the council treated her as if she were a hysterical whiner, and conveyed his disrespect by interrupting her when she spoke and deriding her concerns.

In spite of this, the dumping did actually stop in 2007, but only because of a permit violation as the coal company owed taxes, which the DEP eventually paid! Cathy could see the corruption happening right in front of her. New permits were applied for and granted and it became clear that the conventional methods to stop this were unlikely to do the job.

CONTACT WITH CELDF.

As part of her council member activities, Cathy attended a meeting in another town where Ben Price, one of the Democracy School teachers and CELDF organizers spoke. Ben is a long time activist, who worked in the corporate world as a manager in a trucking company and engaged in activism on the side. As president of Penn consumer action network since 2004, he had been hearing about Thomas Linzey and Richard Grossman, and attended one of first democracy schools they taught in Chambersburg. When the opportunity arose for a full time position, he jumped on it. Since that time, he has met with folks in two thirds of Pennsylvania’s Counties, from Delaware County where folks are fighting corporate development issues, Buck’s County which is faced with natural gas drillings, Berks County with sludge dumping, Adams county with chemical corporation pollution and the list goes on.
BEN PRICE: The work in endless and days off are few, but my family knows I’m happier doing this than the paycheck job. It has transformed my outlook on life.
And the best thing about this work is meeting someone like Cathy Miorelli, someone willing to take a stand.

Ben Price started meeting with Tamaqua community members informally, then began attending borough county meetings where he witnessed how community members had had it up to their eyeballs with being a “ sacrifice zone” and they weren’t going to take it anymore. Working with folks like this is always inspiring. Some of these folks had been fighting the good fight for years, like Dante Picciano of the Army for a Clean Environment, who became an ally for Ben and Cathy, sharing his insight and furthering their organizing by putting them in touch with other helpful people.

At this gathering where Cathy met Ben Price of CEDLF, she also met the Pennocks, whose son Daniel died after exposure to sludge, which had been dumped on the farmland next door to their home. This made the stakes crystal clear. Impressed with Ben’s broad knowledge about sludge dumping and Pennsylvania communities and dedication to providing alternative strategies for fighting the practice, Cathy decided to attend a one-day Democracy School.

THE DEMOCRACY SCHOOL

This Democracy School was held in an adjacent township with about 20 people attending, including supervisors from other communities who were struggling with the dumping of sludge. Cathy was the only one present from Tamaqua and she was completely energized by the experience. Although this particular community did not pass a ban against sludge, Cathy was motivated to encourage Tamaqua to be in the forefront of passing an ordinance. She now knew that local government could prevent the dumping and she was determined to do something about this in her community.

CATHY: After the Democracy School I was permanently changed. I learned things I should have learned in history class.  I learned how the country was ruled by a few, though I had wanted to believe that it was the many.  Most importantly I learned that we have rights as a local government. I wanted everybody to hear this. I realized that we could act on what we wanted most and put together an ordinance that would prevent contaminants from coming into our town.

JOE MURPHY:  I don’t call myself an activist, but an advocate. I’m an advocate for the better health of our environment. I already knew that these governmental agencies are self-serving entities. The concept of local control is more important now than any other time in our history. We are not just sheep.

Cathy’s excitement encouraged a few fellow supervisors to have a school in Tamaqua and when this happened, more people got energized. They then drafted with CELDF’s help an ordinance banning the dumping of sludge. Ben Price and Thomas Linzey made personal appearances at the Tamaqua Council. They asked what the community wanted to do.

CATHY: Ben and Thomas don’t want to come in and take the lead. They don’t tell folks what to do, they don’t impose, instead they guide and consult. Once we decided that we really want this dumping to stop, we knew what the essence of the ordinance would be.

The process to get an ordinance passed for a town council vote, is to first have it proposed as it was by Cathy, and then to have it advertised to the community in the local papers like a classified ad. Leading this effort alongside Cathy was the mayor of Tamaqua Borough, a young fellow following in his father’s politically active footsteps. Chris Morrison had previously traveled to Harrisburg to meet with legislators there, and even met with Governor Rendell, but he soon realized that the sludge industry’s billion dollar profits and lobby carried more weight than the health concerns of a small group of people.

MAYOR CHRIS MORRISON: Tamaqua is where I am going to stay and create my future. Our biggest issue is taking care of the environment and I have brought it to the forefront in my tenure as mayor. We shouldn’t have to wait until a farmer’s sheep die or a child for people to get involved. We need to educate now.

The Mayor and Cathy and others distributed information leaflets door to door. Knocking on those doors and making personal contact with people was a hugely important organizing tool to garner the necessary support. And the newspapers also gave the ordinance some positive coverage, which is not usually the case.

OBSTACLES THEY FACED

As Cathy and others worked to organize support, one constant obstacle they encountered was that people are simply so busy. They are holding down two jobs and taking their kids to baseball practice and cub scouts. They find it difficult to take the time to get educated and that is frustrating to Cathy. As far as she’s concerned, people need to know what these pollutants have the potential to do and how sick they can get and what they can do to stop it. But maybe because people are so busy, it’s easier for them to believe that the government will keep them safe.  The Democracy School helps to break through that denial, but they have to be already open enough to the information that they will take the time. Unfortunately it’s only when people are directly threatened that they seem to get motivated, so the task of organizers has to include making the threats tangible.

PASSING THE ORDINANCE

Another obstacle to Cathy’s intent was that she was in the minority on their seven member council.  A few of the members believed the DEP statements about the dumping being safe, and they liked the dollar a ton deal.  Some also had associations with the coal companies so their bias was clear. The then council president got contributions from the dumpers. Additionally the Tamaqua solicitor opposed the ordinance. Like other solicitors, whose job is to keep the council from potential suits, he spoke against passing the ordinance, warning that it could be seen as challenging state law.

The document opens with the lines:
“An ordinance to protect the health safety and general welfare of the citizens and environment of Tamaqua Borough by banning corporations from engaging in the land application of sewage sludge, by banning persons from using corporations to engage in land application of sewage sludge, by providing for the testing of sewage sludge prior to land application in the borough, by removing constitutional powers of corporations within the borough, by recognizing and enforcing the rights of residents to defend natural communities ecosystems.”

When it came time for the ordinance then to be officially presented and come up for a vote, Cathy knew that with the seven members on the Tamaqua council the vote would likely be split. Cathy scrambled around to get as many people as possible to the meeting. She succeeded and got a large crowd to attend, and hear the discussion. It was clear that the majority of citizens present wanted the ordinance to be passed and this put a lot of pressure on the council members who opposed it.  *****The more people make their wishes clear up close and in person, the more pressure on them to do the will of their constituents. Cathy read to everyone from the State Constitution of Pennsylvania, the portion of the document that specifically acknowledges local control.

One thing that is always an obstacle two these townships passing this challenging form of legislation is the threat of being sued. Because solicitors see their job as preventing this from happening, this yields the corporations even more power as just the threat of a suit will discourage people from enacting measures to curtail their activity and protect themselves. Moreover, it’s not only the township, but the individual supervisors who can be sued. As we also saw with Blaine Township in Western Pennsylvania, each person who steps up has to dig deep into their well of courage to deal with this threat.

For Cathy, this is not the end of the world: “Maybe we would have to be sued to make it work.”

MAYOR CHRIS MORRISON: If I am going to be sued, so be it.  You want to take my row home, my little car, good luck, you can have them. We are going to protect our community.  This is what we ran on and we are going to follow through. I was able to cast the tie breaking vote and it was fantastic.  

The mayor cast the deciding vote for the ordinance. So in September 19, 2006, the borough of Tamaqua passed the sludge ordinance and became the first community to give nature rights in their local ordinances. A number of communities in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire have followed suit since then. Acknowledging the rights of the ecosystem was an important part of the ordinance for its proponents. The opposition disagreed about giving rights to something that wasn’t “alive and not a person.” Proponents affirm that just as children don’t have full legal rights but deserve to be protected, nature too needs to be protected.

TAMAQUA PASSES A SECOND ORDINANCE.

With the success of this ordinance and the community’s enthusiastic support, as they continued showing up in good numbers at the council meetings, the following spring the borough council passed a second ordinance to ban anything else the waste corporations might want to haul in.

At one of the many public meetings, a representative from the DEP came to defend the dumping permits. She declared that there was no evidence of fly ash being unsafe. Before a crowded room of over 100 citizens, Mayor Morrison confronted her:
MAYOR CHRIS MORRISON: I asked her if she would like to take a tea spoon of this fly ash and be willing to put that in her water glass and mix it up and drink it. She said ‘absolutely not.’  But it’s okay for us to breathe it?

On May first, 2007, Tamaqua passed the second ordinance banning corporate waste.

ENFORCEMENT

The coal companies still intend to fill up the pits around the town with fly ash. When the council received a letter from the DEP telling them the permits have been granted to dump fly ash in the borough, it responded with a letter containing their ordinance and stating that they would enforce it.  The question is now: who will do the enforcing?  The town’s code enforcement officer is aware that the ordinance challenges state law and he may be lax in carrying out his duties, not wanting to get into trouble.  The local police know that normally state law trumps local law, so they are not going to be excited about stepping in.

There is also the possibility that the next council elected may decide to try to rescind the ordinances or disregard them. To counteract this possibility the engaged citizens have put into the ordinance that if the borough doesn’t enforce the ban, individuals in the community are authorized to do so themselves.  Cathy and others are ready to take on the company and have been told by CELDF that they will be given free legal assistance when and if the time comes for them to act.  

DEMOCRACY SPREADS TO OTHER TOWNSHIPS

The mayor has gotten phone calls from other communities since Tamaqua passed these ordinances.  Some folks in Western Pennsylvania wanted to know what was going on and others from as far away as Florida were tracking what happened in Tamaqua. Closer by, other townships where sludge was being dumped, heard about the Tamaqua ordinances, among them Rush and Packer.

There is a viral nature to this work.  One community hears shared woes and learns of inventive solutions and in conversation considers their options.  It was the case here with Rush Township, adjacent to Tamaqua, where Joe Murphy happens to reside. When he informally told his own township council about the ordinance, to his surprise, they invited him to speak at a meeting about this new approach to banning sludge. Rush has a population of about 3200 people, it’s one of the larger township in the region and it has a lot of farms being cajoled into accepting the dumping. Joe invited Ben Price and Thomas Linzey to meet with the township supervisors. In Joe’s experience these three supervisors are often at odds with each other, so he didn’t have high expectations, but they all agreed to advertise the ordinance as the law requires. The residents, including a number of farmers, came to learn about it and were supportive. Only one person challenged Joe.  She asked: where do we take our own biosolids? You want to say we can’t dump at all? Aren’t you being a hypocrite? Joe answered her that this was a larger issue that is not addressed in this specific ordinance. This is about outside corporations dumping sludge with no oversight and testing.

JOE MURPHY: This is about local control. We should be the ones who decide whether to accept waste from outside, and I want to make sure that waste is being dealt with the right way. We need to take this cheap alternative out of hands of the people who created it and who are profiting.

And so it was that Joe’s supervisors voted for the ordinance and banned the dumping of sewage sludge in September 2006.