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Disease Land 

With Middlefield's cancer study six months overdue, a band of pastors prepares for battle.

The letter is more than a year old, but Ron and Laura Duncan still cling to it as a lifeline. Dated May 3, 2001, and signed by Robert Indian, chief of community assessments for the Ohio Department of Health, it provided the couple's first piece of good news in a long time.

For years, the Duncans worried that Middlefield, an industrial village in Geauga County, housed high rates of leukemia, birth defects, and neurological disease ("While the EPA Slept," November 15, 2001). When the U.S. EPA found dangerous chemicals tainting groundwater near a local factory, the Duncans thought they had proof of a health hazard.

Yet despite their lobbying, the chemicals remain in the ground today, seven years after they were discovered. And while the Duncans believe the village's health problems continue to grow, the Ohio EPA has appeared more interested in downplaying their concerns than investigating them.

Indian's letter seemed to herald a new era. He acknowledged that Middlefield's concerns included not just cancer, but "a much broader problem of birth defects, neurological diseases, and other illnesses/conditions that may be related to some type of environmental exposure." A few months later, he announced that he would study the village's cancer rate. Geauga County Health Commissioner Robert Weisdack promised to press for surveys of additional maladies after the first study was completed.

"We felt so relieved," Ron Duncan says.

Today, six months after the report was due, a health department spokesman says it's still not finished. And despite Indian's May 2001 letter, he now pleads ignorance of Middlefield's concerns about a wide range of illnesses that appear to be pollution-related. "What's been expressed to me is cancer," he says. "That's it."

For some residents, the report's delay -- and Indian's sudden loss of memory -- amounts to yet another obstacle the state has erected to keep them from discovering the truth about their health. But if the state's goal is to slowly diffuse interest in the problems, as residents suggest, it seems to have backfired. The U.S. EPA is back actively participating in the site. And now Columbus bureaucrats also have a band of clergy on their trail.

In January, the Geauga Cooperative Ministry circulated petitions demanding a complete health assessment. Werner Lange, pastor of the Auburn Community Church, isn't shy about attacking both the Ohio EPA and the Ohio Department of Health. "We want to galvanize public opinion, so these agencies do what they're publicly funded to do . . . This is both corporate abuse and institutional abuse, and it's all aimed at these people in Middlefield."

The Ohio EPA declined comment.

Lange sent the petitions to the Ohio EPA and Weisdack, not the state health department. He says he's given up on Indian's department, believing it overburdened and lacking incentive to expose ugly truths. Indian's reports "are practically guaranteed to be a whitewash of corporate misbehavior," Lange says. Some environmental activists echo that assessment, contending that Indian's studies elsewhere have gone out of their way to discount health risks.

But the clergy group isn't making it easy on Weisdack, either. It asked him to undertake a study on his own and not wait for Indian. "We were hoping we'd have a maverick county health director to take on this case as his own, but we've been badly disappointed," Lange says.

Weisdack bridles at the accusations. He doesn't have the resources to do the study, he says. "Robert Indian has all the data. I don't. If someone else wants to do this more quickly, I'm not going to stop them. What's holding them back?"

Middlefield, meanwhile, continues to wait. Bonnie Cavanaugh, whose son suffers from a form of autism, believes Middlefield won't know the extent of the problem until a full study is complete. But Cavanaugh is beginning to doubt the motives of both the state and county health departments. "If they're not doing an assessment, that's an additional cover-up."

More by Sarah Fenske

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