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When government fails to protect

120 at Tamaqua forum told to start a revolution to fight sludge

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Antoinette and Russell Pennock, Robesonia, describe how toxic sludge killed their 17-year-old son. The Pennocks told Tamaqua area residents on Wednesday to do whatever it takes to stop sludge from coming into the area.

Tom Linzey told 120 worried area residents that the best way to fight toxic sludge dumping is to start their own revolution.

Linzey, along with Ben Price, both of the Environmental Legal Defense Fund, Chambersburg, urged those attending a public forum at the Tamaqua Community Center to recognize that unusual steps need to be taken. That's because industry has just about pre-empted a town's chance to protect itself and current laws are basically irrelevant. Rulings by individual judges are what can make the difference, he said.

"You're experiencing a fundamental failure of all levels of government."

Linzey's remarks were part of a presentation to benefit municipalities. Area townships and boroughs were represented, including areas as far as North Whitehall Township. A vocal contingent from Hazleton City also was on hand. The forum was made possible by Tamaqua Borough Council and those in attendance urged council members to take the lead through adoption of a six-pronged sludge policy.

The ordinance would: 1) ban corporations from hauling or dumping sewage sludge; 2) prohibit individuals from land applying sludge unless each load is tested for compliance; 3) recognize the rights of residents to a healthy environment; 4) extend rights to community residents to protect the environment; 5) protect the community from corporate challenges to the ordinance and 6) give individual residents authority to enforce the ordinance.

Linzey said sludge contains about 600,000 different contaminants. State regulators, however, only check for 11 of those.

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DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS A strong attendance of 120 at Wednesday's sludge forum attested to local concern about the issue. The forum was sponsored by Tamaqua Borough and held at the Tamaqua Community Center.

Sludge is being proposed for nearby Schuylkill Township. Because of risks, Dr. Dante Picciano of the Army for a Clean Environment, told attendees that they should have the right to determine what is dumped in their communities.

"The days of unopposed dumping in the Anthracite Region are over," announced Picciano.

Price explained that "regulatory laws, permitting processes and regulatory systems are set up so that communities lose and profiteers win." Price said there is a "disconnect" in democracy when the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is allowed to decide what is going to be dumped in local towns.

"A beneficial use is a use where someone can make a buck out of it," Price said, adding that "regulators have taken out of your hands the responsibility to decide what's good for you and your kids."

Emotions ran high throughout the two-hour session, but none more so than when Robesonia parents Antoinette and Russell Pennock described how their healthy, 17-year-old son Danny was killed within days after exposure to toxic sludge spread near their home.

"How do you watch your son gasp for his last breath," Antoinette said. "How do you tell your son that it's okay to let go? The loss of our son left a hole in our hearts," she said, crying.

Attendees were visibly moved by the mother's words, many wiping their eyes.

The full story of Danny Pennock appeared in the TIMES NEWS on Friday, July 21, and can be accessed online at the newspaper archives:

Mayor Chris Morrison had words of praise for the Berks County couple.

"Every time you tell the story you re-live what happened," said Morrison, who introduced each of the speakers. Morrison also advised attendees to heed the words of Price, Linzey and Picciano. "They brought knowledge to the meeting, and the Pennocks brought courage."

The meeting was attended by a majority of Tamaqua council members along with state Rep. David G. Argall, R-124.

Council could put the ordinance on the agenda for its Aug. 8 regular meeting. West Penn resident Bill Mackey reported that the township had adopted half of an ordinance and he hopes the missing half will become a reality.

"I would like to see the Borough of Tamaqua take a stand," Mackey noted, emphasizing that a leadership role is imperative.

During the public forum, comments covered a wide range of concerns.

Ricky Johnson, Rush Township, warned attendees to be wary of regulatory agencies.

"Don't listen to DEP or EPA," he said, indicating that a DEP employee told Johnson that he and others along Ben Titus Road shouldn't be making "all this commotion" despite the fact that residents along a 2.2-mile stretch have fallen ill with rare cancers.

Of special note was attendance by an outspoken contingent from Hazleton.

City resident Louis Darraugh sharply criticized Mayor Lou Barletta for accepting sludge.

'We're here to support Tamaqua and we want Tamaqua to support us," he said.

Anna Arroyos, Hazleton, cautioned Tamaqua to avoid following Hazleton's footsteps, a place, she said, that is now "a city of hate."

Linzey said a revolution is sometimes the key to fighting issues such as sludge. For instance, a Home Rule referendum is an option for communities whose governing board is reluctant to enact protective ordinances. The primary obstacle for many communities, he said, is when solicitors tell borough officials that there is a possibility of being sued. That's when borough leaders typically back down, he said.

Tamaqua resident Howard Miller pointed out that those kinds of issues become very real in small towns when court costs need to be absorbed by residents.

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