Johnson County families question state officials over cancer, contamination concerns

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FRANKLIN, Ind.—Christina Gilbert held a photo of her daughter, Sydney Phillips, as she entered Franklin Community High School Friday evening looking for answers alongside hundreds of other community members.

Phillips was diagnosed with Leukemia in 2015 when she was 15 years old and just finished treatment.

“If there is all this contamination, what are their plans to get it cleaned up because we’ve had several kids in my addition alone,” Gilbert said.

Armed with questions, Gilbert joined a nearly packed auditorium at a listening session with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and Indiana State Department of Health. Parents in Johnson County  have expressed concerns about the number of pediatric cancer cases in their community and whether there is any environmental contamination.

“We shouldn’t spend three years of our lives and suffer the way our communities have suffered and we have suffered and our children have suffered just to bring that out” Kari Rhinehart, who lost her daughter Emma Grace to brain cancer at age 13 and co-founded the organization ‘If It Was Your Child,’ said.

“It doesn’t take that long to put something on paper, put something into place to make this community feel safe,” Stacie Davidson, who’s stepson successfully battled Leukemia and who helped co-found ‘If It Was Your Child,’ said.

The group said they want to see more investigation from state officials and a plan in place.

Recent testing by Edison Wetlands Association and Mundell & Associates showed of samples taken from 14 homes near sites with a history of contamination, two had higher levels of the volatile organic compound TCE.

During the listening session, IDEM Commissioner Bruno Pigott said they are willing to sample those two homes, but told the crowd he didn’t think the test results demonstrated a widespread need to test throughout the community.

“We look for sources of contaminants. Where we find sources of contaminants it makes sense to go out and sample and that’s the protocol we use to determine whether or not there should be sampling that is conducted to ensure the safety. Where there’s a contaminant we follow and we sample” Pigott said when asked about sampling any more homes.

Pigott said they’ll consider putting in an air monitor in Franklin to have a real-time sense of the air quality there, be out in the community looking for other sources and will continue clean up and monitoring at the sites.

One site is the Webb Wellfield. It’s a non-NPL state led Superfund site. The site included two wells that were found to be contaminated. The use of the wellfield was eventually stopped.

IDEM is overseeing the cleanup of volatile organic compounds found during the investigation.

Another site includes the nearby old Amphenol/Franklin Power Products site. The site became part of the EPA’s RCRA Corrective Action program after it was determined a former operator released volatile organic compounds into the environment, including into on-site sewers.

The EPA instructed the companies to install a groundwater pump and treat system as part of the clean-up process to eliminate volatile organic compounds. Following the release of test results from the Edison Wetlands Association, the EPA instructed Amphenol to develop sampling plans to investigate soil, groundwater and vapor conditions at the site.

“We thought that we had a remedy out here back in the 90’s and so this is kind of starting a little bit from scratch but using the information we had in the past about where the contamination was found and so I think we’re having them just go back to those areas as well as look at other potential areas of concern and sample soils and groundwater and vapor within the soils on the site,” Joe Cisneros, the chief of the corrective action program at the EPA Region 5 office, said.

Cisneros said though it was calculated only 8 lb. of emissions are coming out of the pump and treat system a year, a device will be installed on the pump and treatment system to eliminate volatile organic compound emissions. Cisneros said samples were also taken from the site’s perimeter.

“Those seemed to show nothing except if you look at data I believe there were a couple of hits of TCE but that material so low that we're not completely sure about it and it's my understanding that we're going to resample those two areas to make sure that our data was correct,” Cisneros said.

There’s another set of data families questioned, though. They want to know why the state does not classify Johnson County or Franklin as having a cancer cluster. If It Was Your Child said it’s counted 50 pediatric cancer cases in Johnson County since 2008, with more than 20 of those not far from the sites in question.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box said while no child is a statistic, they have not been able to show statistical significance.

“Just because we calculated these cancer risks in ‘15 and then again in ‘17 and didn't find any evidence for cancer cluster does not mean that we are done continuing to monitor this and we going forward are going to do that,” she said.  “Our numbers when we look at them preliminary compared to what the young lady said in the audience today don't match but I am happy to sit down with them and if they can bring me names and dates of birth for these children we are happy to make sure that those children are on our registry.”

The answers frustrated some in the audience, as well as IDEM and ISDH being the only agencies with seats at the table on stage at the listening session.

“We are incredibly disappointed that the same agencies we brought these concerns to three years ago, hijacked this meeting so they can give the same performance again. Disappointed, but not surprised,” Rhinehart said.

“The agencies seemed to have the same answer for different questions. They went around questions, which frustrated people even more,” Davidson said. “We need to hold the agencies accountable to do what they have said they would do. Along with that, we would like to split sample with EWA if IDEM is willing.”

Franklin schools also initiated their own testing after EWA released test results. It said after a second round of testing it did not find levels of concern and plans to start the school year as scheduled.

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