As Charlotte O'Rourke, 71, of Masontown, Pa., sat in the humid meeting hall of the local Italo-American social club one day in late July, she wasn't preoccupied with thoughts of a typical grandmother. Instead she dwelled on a more somber issue: mercury poisoning.
Greenpeace workers in conjunction with other local environmental groups provided mercury exposure tests to 154 residents that day. They picked this small town in Greene County because of what environmentalists consider be to be excessive coal burning from the electric plant, Hatfield's Ferry, owned by Allegheny Energy.
Young and old stood in line, so Greenpeace workers could cut a sample of their hair, the preferred method for mercury testing. Most hoped to learn they were healthy, others worried they were contaminated, but all were glad to receive assistance.
O'Rourke came to the event looking for solutions on curbing the pollution problem and to find out how she could help. Even though no one knows when or if tougher environmental controls will be invoked, O'Rourke was pleased to see others fighting for a healthier community.
Media attention was drawn to the small town in Greene County about a month earlier, in the later part of June, when six Greenpeace protestors scaled a 700-foot smokestack at Hatfield's Ferry. After climbing a majority of the way, the protestors tied a 122-foot-long banner to the side of the smokestack which read, "Warning: The Bush Energy Plan Kills -- Clean Energy Now."
Pushing for stronger pollution controls is more than just a passing interest for O'Rourke. She no longer opens doors or cracks windows in her home because of soot blown through the air. Drinking tap water is off limits, so she sets aside a budget to buy bottled water as needed. Picnicking or relaxing outside is even a taboo practice. "It's impossible most of the time. I won't do it more than once or twice a year," she said.
The soot O'Rourke mentioned is what Greenpeace experts refer to as "sulfur-particulates" or sulfur-oxide particles measuring less than 0.5 microns. At this microscopic size, particles can be inhaled from the air and bypass the body's natural filtering system.
The water contamination many local residents are concerned about is due to the high level of methyl-mercury environmentalists believe is produced during the coal burning process. The contaminate finds its way into water supplies, mostly through rain and can be consumed from eating fish. According the US EPA website, "Mercury is a well known and long established neurotoxin that slows fetal and child development and causes irreversible deficits in brain function." It is also believed that exposure to methyl-mercury deteriorates organs that help filter impurities throughout the body.
In 1990, O'Rourke's husband, Donald O'Rourke passed away at the age of 57. Recalling memories of her husband was painful. While speaking of him, she turned her head a moment, fought off tears then placed a hand flat on a nearby table. Once she steadied herself O'Rourke said he died from renal-cell-carcinoma, a form of kidney cancer.
The deterioration of the kidneys is why many experts believe that disease and localized pollution are connected. To O'Rourke, coal burning plants are partially, if not wholly responsible for his death.
O'Rourke didn't pursue legal action against any coal burning plants. "All I could do was think about the loss of my husband." She didn't believe it possible to sue over his death. "No one can prove he died because of a plant. I believe he did, but you can't prove it."
Exposure testing at the social club was simple; little more than filling out a few consent forms. The results however were not immediate. The hair samples workers cut were placed into small plastic bags, cataloged and sent to a Washington, D.C., based laboratory. Participants were told they would receive results within a few weeks. Since coal burning power plants are considered the largest sources of methyl-mercury pollution in the US, the residents of Greene County remain worried, anticipating the worst.
Managing the welcome desk was Greenpeace worker, Rene Blanchard, 24, one of the six protesters who climbed the smokestack at Hatfield's Ferry. She asked participants to sign-in and answered questions about mercury testing.
Blanchard doesn't regret protesting and believes her involvement was a more logical sacrifice. "I'd rather be the one protesting and risk getting arrested than have married people with children and mortgages risk everything they have," she said soberly.
Blanchard doesn't feel being arrested is something to be proud of. She mentioned her mother and father are concerned about her future; whether she'll be spending the next few years in prison.
Federal charges of "destruction of an energy facility," originally brought up the day after the protest were temporarily dropped by US Attorney, Mary Beth Buchanan. State felony charges are still pending against all the protestors.
Buchanan told the Associated Press she may charge the activists later, depending on how the state charges are resolved. The federal charges were dropped because Buchanan wanted to see what would happen in state court. If the protestors are federally charged each of them could receive up to 20 years imprisonment.
Since many in Masontown feel the local environment is dangerously polluted, those who can afford the financial burden of moving are considering it. To local residents, the health risks resulting from coal burning have plagued their lives indefinitely. Without knowledge of when the tide will turn, people are left to question their future, uncertain as it is.
The environmental concerns in Masontown are new to most people outside of Greene County. The possible dangers of coal burning weren't reported until the original six Greenpeace protestors scaled the 70-story smokestack at Hatfield's Ferry.
For O'Rourke, moving isn't an option. "This is my home. I've lived here for 42-years. I shouldn't have to move," she said proudly.
A friend walked over to O'Rourke and placed a hand on her shoulder and said, "I'm going home now Charlotte. This is a good thing." After a moment, O'Rourke smiled. "This is my home," she reaffirmed. "I'm not going anywhere."
Ron Gav is a freelance journalist in Southwestern Pennsylvania.