Greene County a Real World Example of the Consequences of Government Inaction

PITTSBURGH (December 7, 2004) -- Pennsylvania's Greene County is among the most polluted counties in the nation, yet federal and state agencies have failed to enforce key environmental laws to protect its residents, according to a report released today. The report, "Pollution Unchecked," by Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and two local groups, also found that state and federal agencies do not adequately monitor pollution in the county or collect data documenting its impact on public health. (Click here for the report.)

"Greene County is a real world example of the harmful consequences of government inaction," said Erik Olson, an NRDC senior attorney and coauthor of the report. "Residents there are exposed to air and water pollutants that can cause cancer, respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases, nervous system damage, birth defects and even premature death -- mostly from mines and power plants that the Bush administration and Pennsylvania officials refuse to clean up."

Devra Davis, director of the Center of Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh and author of the book "When Smoke Runs Like Water," likened the problems documented in the NRDC report to her experience growing up in Donora, a polluted Pennsylvania town. "The levels of arsenic and other toxic emissions in Greene County are among the highest in the country," she said. "Other regions with such pollution have elevated rates of cancer. By the time evidence of human harm can be demonstrated, however, it is far too late for those whose health has been damaged."

The major pollution sources in this rural county, which sits in the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, are two of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants in the country: Hatfield's Ferry Power Station in Monongahela Township and Fort Martin Power Station in Maidsville, West Virginia. Allegheny Energy, headquartered in Hagerstown, Maryland, owns both plants.

In 2002 alone, Hatfield's Ferry and Fort Martin released 4,110 pounds of arsenic, 277 pounds of beryllium, 69 million pounds of nitrogen oxides (NOx), and nearly 500 million pounds of sulfur dioxide (SO2) into the air. Arsenic and beryllium increase the risk of lung cancer; NOx contributes to the formation of ground-level ozone or smog, which irritates lungs; and SO2 causes lung disease, aggravates asthma, and contributes to heart disease. Both power plants also are major sources of particulate matter, or soot, which is associated with asthma attacks, chronic bronchitis, decreased lung function, and premature death. The two power plants have a long history of Clean Air Act violations, the county currently exceeds federal standards for ozone pollution, and state officials have proposed that the Environmental Protection Agency designate Greene County an unhealthful area due to high particulate-matter pollution levels.

County residents also are plagued with contaminated water. Hatfield's Ferry and Fort Martin, for example, have dumped millions of tons of coal ash in poorly controlled landfills that contaminate groundwater and surface waters, and directly discharge pollution into the Monongahela River. As a result, groundwater and often the Monogahela, which serves as county's principal source of drinking water, are polluted with arsenic, boron, manganese, molybdenum and other contaminants. Active and abandoned coal mines in the area also foul local waters with such toxic pollutants as arsenic, which causes cancer.

Despite the health risks posed by this pollution, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has repeatedly waived requirements that public water systems in the state, including Greene County, regularly test drinking water for arsenic and other inorganic contaminants. Instead, most are now required to test for these dangerous contaminants only once every nine years, virtually guaranteeing that most problems will go undetected. NRDC contends this is a violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Meanwhile, the state monitors air pollution in the county at only one site and collects data for only three pollutants.

"This report highlights a host of problems that need to be brought to the agencies' -- and the public's -- attention," said Andrew McElwaine, president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, one of the organizations that sponsored the report. "It reveals many shortfalls. We hope that state and federal regulatory agencies take the opportunity to address these critical public health concerns. We believe these problems are not isolated to southwestern Pennsylvania alone."

The limited pollution monitoring in the county indicates there is a major problem. For example, the report found data that showed that:

  • In 2002, Greene County was among the top 2 percent of U.S. counties for toxic air pollution emissions, ranking 38th among the 2,260 counties where air emissions were reported.

  • Two local drinking water supplies contained arsenic, a potent carcinogen, at concentrations of 30 parts per billion. That level is three times higher than EPA's new 10 ppb standard, which goes into effect in 2006. The risk of dying from cancer from drinking water with this level of arsenic over a lifetime is about 1 in 100, according to the National Academy of Sciences.
  • "Wildcat" sewers -- pipes that dump untreated raw sewage directly from homes or businesses -- spew sewage into the Monongahela River just upstream of where Green County drinking water plants draw their water, polluting the water with E. coli and other hazardous microorganisms.

Federal and state authorities have done little to examine the potential links between toxic pollution in the county and health problems, but there are some data that warrant investigation. There are reports that a growing number of county schoolchildren are experiencing developmental problems, and county cancer rates are higher than average. New cancer cases and cancer deaths are about 8 percent higher than the national rate and nearly 3 percent higher than the overall state rate. The incidence of lung, colon and prostate cancer among county residents also is significantly higher than the national rate.

"If federal and state authorities are serious about protecting Greene County residents, they're going to need better information," said Farley Toothman of the Monongahela Riverkeeper, the third organization that sponsored the report. NRDC, Pennsylvania Environmental Council and Toothman's group recommended that DEP improve air quality monitoring in Greene County, require better monitoring of and set stricter limits for Hatfield's Ferry and Fort Martin wastewater and landfill discharge pollution, and aggressively prosecute Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act violations by both power plants. The groups also recommended that DEP revoke the monitoring waivers it issued to public water systems and require more frequent monitoring of toxic contaminants in drinking water.