They came by the hundreds. Cynics, optimists and people worn out by wait and worry -- petrified something toxic is brewing in their bodies that they can’t get rid of.
Now, residents in three towns along the border of Montgomery and Bucks counties are hoping a legendary environmental activist with a movie named after her can help them.
For decades people who’ve worked at the military bases in Horsham, Warminster and Warrington or lived around them have heard rumors or been told, “don’t drink the water.” Some didn’t. Most did. For many, they simply didn't believe they were being poisoned.
Erin Brockovich has arrived – almost in the flesh – with a law firm willing to investigate how chemicals used in firefighting foam contaminated water on the bases and in the surrounding communities. They promised to hold someone accountable.
“Superman is not coming,” said Brockovich, whose face towered Oz-like on the auditorium projection screen at Upper Moreland High School.
From her home in California, Brockovich joined the meeting via Skype, giving the standing-room-only crowd a passionate accounting of what they’re up against, as victims.
“We are going to have to jump in there and begin the act of saving ourselves,” said Brockovich, telling everyone they can’t rely on the EPA or any other government agency to swoop in for a rescue. If they want to fight loss of life, livelihood and property values, they’ll have to be on the front lines of the water contamination battle and be willing to engage in a persistent, protracted assault.
The community meeting came 24 hours after Horsham Township adopted an ordinance to make their public water supply the safest in the nation for communities dealing with PFC water contamination.
Brockovich’s ultimate role was to help build trust in the environmental lawyers who’d come down from New York to investigate which human and financial losses they can connect to water contaminated by PFOS and PFOA. The chemicals, made by companies like 3M and DuPont, were used for decades in firefighting foam at Willow Grove Naval Air Station and Joint Reserve Base as well as Warminster’s Naval Air Warfare Center.
Residents raised questions about blood testing, water testing and “really, how safe IS the water?”
And story after story of suffering.
“I won’t have another baby until I know what’s going on,” said Clare Brown who moved to Horsham several years ago with her husband Dennis. Lured by the township’s quality of life, they eagerly started a family. Daughter Meara, now 2-and-a-half, was born with degenerative kidney disease, had surgery at nine months and may need a kidney transplant. Brown wants to know how much the PFCs have expanded in her family’s blood, but she’s struggling to find tests they can afford.
Other mothers stepped up to the microphones with stories of children battling kidney cancer who’ve spent Christmases together at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Some have died.
“I’m the voice of all childhood cancers,” one mom announced. “This has to stop. Please stand up for our children.”
“Your children are unfortunately the victims of what has happened,” said Robin Greenwald, lead attorney from Weitz and Luxenberg. Greenwald said she was surprised to hear about so many kids with kidney cancer and wanted to investigate that more. “It’s important to share that information with the CDC and Department of Health. Brave moms and dads need to get a federal agency to come in and have a look at that.”
Other parents worried aloud if their kids should be romping around or playing baseball in parks right outside the Willow Grove base where five of Horsham’s 15 public wells were taken offline last month after the EPA issued a new health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for lifetime exposure to PFOA and PFOS.
The largest study to date of PFOA (also known as C8) shows links to kidney and testicular cancer as well as six serious illnesses: high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, pregnancy-induced hypertension, osteoporosis and bone density reduction.
“There’s also apparently evidence from that litigation that DuPont, in its own internal studies, has some evidence, some epidemiological studies that PFOA might also cause pancreatic cancer and potentially bladder cancer,” Greenwald said.
PFOS is linked to high cholesterol, fertility and low birth weights, according to the EPA.
Paul Lutz flew back from a business trip in Ft. Lauderdale for the meeting. The school custodian unlocked the doors to let him in early. Lutz and friend Valerie Secrease wanted to make sure they could see and hear everything. They sat front and center – a place symbolic of their stake in this case.
People who worked on the bases have almost certainly been exposed to PFCs at higher levels, attorneys said. But that’s just part of their plight, Lutz and Secrease will tell you. With exposure to a host of other dangerous chemicals over the years, who knows how it’s all baking together inside their bodies. Lutz, 43, calls it friendly fire. Right about the time he and his wife were planning their kids-out-of-the-house phase of life together, Lutz was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. His last year has been consumed with treatments instead of planning those romantic vacations. Now he’s intent on staying healthy enough to get a stem cell transplant in the fall.
“I’d really like to know what cancers, why they’re limited to just a small block of cancers when there’s tons of research, like that C8 document, showing there’s a lot more cancers connected than what they’re advertising,” Lutz said. He and Secrease help run a private Facebook group dedicated to organizing and educating members about how their work may have affected their health. They’ve helped track more than 100 cases of cancer and posted scores of articles and documents.
“I’d like to know down the road if are they gonna include more cancers because we have found information that shows there are more cancers involved than what they have listed and I’d like everyone that has those different cancers to be included,” Secrease said.
Brockovich acknowledged the military members in the audience and reassured them they would be included in any lawsuit that moves forward.
Weitz and Luxenberg is also fighting water contamination cases in Vermont and Hoosick Falls, New York. They haven’t decided who they’ll take action against in Pennsylvania but offered retainers for people who want to sue for personal injury, wrongful death and business losses.
Attorney Donald Soutar said while he didn’t know what was happening with property values right now near the local bases, in other communities with contaminated water, he said people were hit hard financially when banks would no longer lend money to prospective home buyers.
For homeowners hooked up to the municipal water supply, Greenwald said “the water is safe now, as far as we know” because the PFC levels in the active public wells tested below the new EPA advisory. “We need to talk," she said to people on private wells and encouraged owners to get their wells tested right away by calling the EPA or a private company like Analytical Laboratories. Soutar said high-quality Granulated Activated Carbon System water filters are effective and can help protect families from contaminants.
Greenwald said people affected outside the base are more fortunate than in some other parts of the country because townships are working to remediate. And Brockovich profiled the EPA as well-intentioned but helplessly neutered agency that shouldn’t be expected to effectively deal with 80,000-plus contaminants on the market each year.
"We in some ways have been lulled into a false sense of security. And we’re now waking up to the fact Superman’s not coming. He is not gonna save us. Our politics are not gonna save us,“ she said, sketching out the reality for anyone considering legal action.
“These situations don’t resolve themselves very quickly. . .And I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news because you’ve already had enough bad news. But as we go through this you will need to be patient. It will take time. You will feel frustrated,” she said, but assured everyone that in the end, they’d find a solution if they stayed informed and most of all, if they stuck together.
The timeline isn’t as critical to Clare Brown as the outcome. The Browns moved out of Horsham last year as deliberately as they’d moved in.
“I don’t care when it happens to be honest,” Brown said. “I just want someone to be held responsible.”