Goodbye to Cancer Valley: In remembrance of my friend John Soley
After a long struggle with cancer, my friend Mr. John Soley died at his home in Carbon County, Pa. on Saturday, June 20. He was only 62, which is too young to die of natural causes. But then, neither John nor I believe he got sick from natural causes. We believe he and many of his neighbors were poisoned by pollution, and that the perpetrators should be held to account.
Outspoken in the local grassroots struggle against environmental injustice, Mr. Soley was a resident of Quakake Road north of Hometown, the rural Appalachian village where I grew up and where my mom still lives. Located where Carbon, Schuylkill and Luzerne counties converge in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal mining region, Quakake Road is a continuation of Ben Titus Road, where residents have reported an unusual number of cases of the rare blood malignancy polycythemia vera as well as other cancers and chronic illnesses. Last year, researchers with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry confirmed a cluster of polycythemia vera in that area and believe it is caused by something in the environment.
Indeed, the valley where Mr. Soley lived lies below what may be the most toxic mountaintop in America. Broad Mountain is home to McAdoo Associates, a former Reading Co. coal mine that in the 1970s became an illegal chemical waste incinerator and dump used by some of the most prominent corporations in America, including BASF, Johnson & Johnson and a company that today is part of petroleum giant BP. The property is now a Superfund toxic waste site that was once considered one of the country’s most dangerous. The first federal investigators on the scene reported finding massive sheets of cancer-causing benzene on the property and dead animals and birds scattered around chemical drums. The smell from the place was so sickening that we used to roll up the car windows and hold our breath when driving past.
Today that Superfund site sits next to the heavily polluting Northeastern Power cogeneration facility, one of seven such power plants in the tri-county area that burn waste coal and waste fuel. Adjacent to the cogeneration plant is what’s known as the Big Gorilla — an old strip mine that since 1997 has served as a dump for the toxic combustion waste created at the power plant. Click here for a photo I took of the cogeneration facility through the gates of the Superfund site.
To give you a sense of how close Mr. Soley lived to this toxic mess, click here for a Google Earth image, where his property is marked with the square in the upper right. The large water body in the center is the Still Creek Reservoir, which provides drinking water for Hometown and the nearby borough of Tamaqua; the black area in the upper left is the old mine site; the lighter-colored area to its right is the Big Gorilla; the white triangle between the black ash pit and the road is the Superfund site; and the industrial facility on the lower edge of the ash pit is the cogeneration plant. The road running along the left edge of the image is Pa. Route 309. The highway roughly follows the Little Schuylkill, the Schuylkill River’s northernmost headwaters, which originate on the mountaintop.
The community also lies a a couple of miles northeast — that is, downwind — of the Air Products plant, a manufacturer of electronics specialty gases and one of the few domestic producers of toxic fluorine gases. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory, the facility reported emitting to the air in 2007 alone more than 3,400 pounds of toxic hydrogen fluoride as well as more than 2,300 pounds of dichloromethane or methylene chloride.
Methylene chloride is a solvent known to cause cancer in humans, and it has a characteristically sweet odor. Coincidentally, during my last visit with Mr. Soley at his home this past October, he noted a weird smell coming from Air Products that he likened to bubble gum.
Welcome to Cancer Valley
I first met John Soley several years ago at a borough council meeting we attended in Tamaqua. It turned out that he knew my father, Dan Sturgis, as they worked together at the former Atlas Powder Co., where Mr. Soley was an electrician. My dad, a draftsman by training and an explosives expert, was first diagnosed with kidney cancer in the mid-1980s and died from it in 1998. The experience of helping care for him in his final months and seeing how many of our neighbors were also sick inspired me to undertake a research project that eventually led me to start a blog called Hometown Hazards.
When I visited him last fall, Mr. Soley had been on kidney dialysis after years of suffering from multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood plasma cells that are formed in bone marrow and that play an important role in immunity. He wanted to walk with me along the Still Creek Reservoir to show me the areas along the shore where the vegetation was dead. Those areas reportedly coincide with springs coming off the mountain, one of several pieces of evidence that suggest the toxic chemicals dumped into the mine on the top of the hill are seeping into the wider ecosystem. But he was too sick to go walking on that day, so instead we sat at his kitchen table and talked.
“We need our story to be told,” he said. “Welcome to Cancer Valley.”
Mr. Soley told me harrowing stories about his own long battle with cancer as well as the health problems of others in his community. One of his neighbors was diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer at age of 18. In another nearby home, two people were both suffering from brain tumors. Another neighbor had stomach cancer. And Mr. Soley knew of at least one child in the area who had leukemia, and whose uncle lived nearby and died of leukemia as a teenager.
Mr. Soley first moved to Quakake Road in 1978 from Tamaqua’s Dutch Hill neighborhood. An outdoorsman and hunter with a deep love for Brittany spaniels, he got a good deal on the land, where he soon opened a kennel. It was only a few years after Mr. Soley moved in that his young neighbor was diagnosed with the rare liver tumor. About a year after that, Mr. Soley’s own health problems began.
Suffering from chronic fatigue that began soon after the move, Mr. Soley was being treated by his doctor for Epstein-Barr syndrome but wasn’t getting any better.
He eventually saw an Epstein-Barr specialist who did additional testing and discovered problems with his T cells, key parts of the immune system. The tests also turned up serious problems with Mr. Soley’s blood cells, which he described as looking like “tapeworms … all stuck together.”
It was in 1997 that Mr. Soley was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.
After his diagnosis, he went through a four-month round of chemotherapy and later received a bone marrow transplant from his sister, Joan Yacobenas of Hometown. He was in the hospital at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore for a couple of months and then lived for a few more months in nearby lodgings for cancer patients so he could be close to his doctors.
Three days after he finally got home, he started bleeding from his bladder — a reaction from one of his cancer drugs. This required operations to clear up blood clots.
When Mr. Soley returned home from that ordeal, he found he couldn’t eat and started losing weight, dropping from 205 pounds to 145.
“I got so skinny when I looked in the mirror I cringed,” he recalled. “I wanted to cry. I could only manage to eat one cookie a day.”
As if that weren’t awful enough, he then started bleeding from his rectum and had to be flown from the Lehigh Valley Medical Center to Johns Hopkins, where doctors diagnosed him with an infected bowel. They wanted to cut out a section but were afraid the operation would kill him. With no other options, they treated him with antibiotics but were not particularly hopeful about his chances.
He recalled how one morning three doctors came into his room and announced — incredulously — that somehow his bowel infection had cleared up.
“They told me I must have had a lot of people praying for me,” Mr. Soley said. “They called it divine intervention.”
After that ordeal, Mr. Soley was able to eat again, and his health gradually improved. But then in June of 1998, tests revealed there was still cancer in his body. He underwent an experimental therapy at Johns Hopkins that involved taking lymphocyte cells from his sister’s body and infusing them into his own intravenously. When that treatment ended in January 1999, he finally felt good again for the first time in a long time.
“I was a completely different person,” he said. “I felt 150 percent.”
His relatively good health lasted until October 2006, when he woke up one morning with a strange feeling in his chest. A neighbor drove him to the hospital in Hazleton, where they found blockages necessitating heart surgery.
While Mr. Soley was undergoing rehab for the surgery, blood tests showed he had abnormally high creatine levels, indicating his kidneys were shutting down. In May 2007, he went on dialysis.
‘This isn’t normal’
When he first got sick, Mr. Soley told me, he figured it was just bad luck on his part. It was only later that he started noticing the patterns, with many neighbors all around him also sick — with cancers of the liver, brain, prostate and blood, as well as thyroid disorders and other chronic illnesses. He lived not far from Betty and Lester Kester, a husband and wife who both died of polycythemia vera within the past two years.
“I said to myself, ‘What in the hell is going on?’ This isn’t normal.”
He soon began noticing strange things in the environment. The reddish-brown dust from the power plant that gathered on people’s cars overnight. The strange chemical odors on the wind. The smell of sulfuric acid emanating from the hill leading up to the Superfund site. The thick white slime that coated the pump on his drinking water well.
A couple of years earlier, on the hillside close to his house, Mr. Soley also discovered what looked like spider webs of some sort of oily substance oozing out of the earth. He called his neighbor and friend, Ricky Johnson, who took photographs. They had a sample of the stuff analyzed at Wilkes University and found they were indeed petroleum products of some sort. The Pa. Department of Environmental Protection eventually sent out someone to take a look at the situation, but the person didn’t even bring digging tools. Mr. Soley provided him with a spade to take samples, which according to DEP showed nothing unusual.
During our conversation, Mr. Soley expressed some bitterness toward local elected officials, who he felt failed to take adequate action to help area residents deal with the various environmental threats they’re facing. For example, there’s never been thorough independent testing of the water and sediment in the Still Creek Reservoir despite the obvious toxic threats. Nor has there been any widespread testing of people living along the reservoir for chemical exposures.
“It’s been a joke,” he said of official efforts to address the problems. “A farce.”
Since Mr. Soley and I met, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) announced that he secured a $5.5 million federal grant to explore the cause of high rate of polycythemia vera in the area. But like me, Mr. Soley was already growing uneasy about officials’ focus on polycythemia vera to the exclusion of all the other health problems suffered by local residents.
What about the people with multiple myeloma? Leukemia? Brain cancer? Prostate cancer? Thyroid disease? Would they be forgotten?
I know I won’t forget my friend and what he went through. Perhaps the best way to honor yet another life lost too soon after great suffering would be to keep a question in mind as we continue our work seeking environmental truth and justice for the people of the Hometown area: What difference would our actions have made to John Soley?
(A version of this story originally appeared on the blog Hometown Hazards.)