Thousands sign petition to renew search for Fort Detrick cancer cluster

More than 5,600 people have signed a petition that asks Maryland’s U.S. senators to take another look at a possible cancer cluster near Fort Detrick.

The petition was created about a month ago by Randy White, who leads the Kristen Renee Foundation. In the petition, White asks U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), to “clean the chemical repositories at Fort Detrick and compensate the affected.”

White’s daughter, Frederick resident Kristen Renee White Hernandez, died of brain cancer at age 30 in 2008.

After her death — which her family suspects is tied to contamination from Fort Detrick — her family formed the foundation in her memory.

For years, the foundation has led rallies, sent out robo-calls, organized marches, pushed for legislation and filed lawsuits to draw attention to cancer cases near Fort Detrick. Some people who signed the most recent petition haven’t been involved in any of that.

“My parents bought a house in Amber Meadows in 1976,” Valiree Stine said. “My aunt also bought a house in Amber Meadows. My cousin bought a house in Amber Meadows. My dad died from cancer, my mom died from cancer, my aunt died from cancer.”

Stine lives in Hagerstown and works at a county office near Area B.

The fenced-in Area B is a Fort Detrick property where, decades ago, the Army dumped sludge from its former decontamination plants, ashes from its incinerators, potentially radioactive sludge from a sewage disposal plant, drums of the industrial solvent trichloroethylene, chemical materials, biological materials and herbicides.

Some in the Frederick community believe that many cancer cases in the residential neighborhoods around Fort Detrick, such as Amber Meadows, were caused by that contamination.

“There’s just too many people for there not to be something, you know?” Stine said. “There’s too many things that were probably buried.”

Stine lived in the Frederick area starting when she was 12 years old, but moved out before she started paying attention to the growing concerns of contamination in her neighborhood.

“If it were today that I lived in Frederick and I knew about it, I think that I would move … outside of Fort Detrick,” Stine said.

Stine signed the petition, and left a comment saying that she believes there is a cancer cluster near Fort Detrick.

In 2011 and 2014, the state health department reported that it was unable to confirm a cancer cluster near Fort Detrick.

According to Clifford Mitchell, director of the Environmental Health Bureau at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the rate of cancer in the Fort Detrick area is about the same as the rate in the county and the state.

Mitchell said in 2014 that it was possible there is or was a cancer cluster, but it’s also possible that the state will never be able to verify that.

Bruce Linton’s wife died after fighting ovarian cancer for four years. Linton was diagnosed with cancer in 2009.

They lived in Clover Hill, another Frederick neighborhood near Fort Detrick.

“It was one of those things where you thought that there could be a correlation, but there was really no way of knowing,” Linton said.

From 1992 to 2011, the Maryland Cancer Registry has 2,247 recorded cancer cases from the Fort Detrick area.

“The data source is an accurate source, but it does not capture 100 percent of persons who lived in the area,” Frederick County Health Department Health Officer Dr. Barbara Brookmyer wrote in an email.

People who might not be in the registry include those who were diagnosed with cancer after moving out of the area; those who were diagnosed with cancer before 1992; and those living outside a certain radius around Fort Detrick.

In a 2012 analysis, the National Research Council acknowledged that there’s no way to tell if there is a cancer cluster because of the lack of historical data.

“Conducting a retrospective study with as few research methodology biases as possible is challenging when the question posed has many unknowns,” Brookmyer said.

Trying to find connections between Fort Detrick, environmental contamination and local cancer cases has been an “ongoing struggle” for the Kristen Renee Foundation and its fellow activists, Linton acknowledged.

He also signed the foundation’s petition. Linton isn’t an activist, but he wants some answers.

“I’d like something definitive, which I’ve been hoping for for some time,” Linton said.

Long before the Kristen Renee Foundation started, the Army Corps of Engineers has been investigating the extent of the environmental contamination, digging wells on and around Fort Detrick to take samples of groundwater.

The Army Corps of Engineers reports back to the community in public meetings held on a quarterly basis. Residents have complained that the decades-long investigation has yielded little in the way of solutions.

The Corps has long-range projections for the cleanup, which may be part of a feasibility report this year or next year, but there have not been any targeted cleanup plans for a particular area of the post or the surrounding neighborhood.

Meanwhile, Fort Detrick has been the target of multiple lawsuits from the Kristen Renee Foundation, a developer and local residents who believe the Army has and is causing harm to the fort’s adjacent properties and the people who live on them.

Last year, the Army denied more than 100 claims from people who argued they or their families had health problems stemming from environmental contamination near Area B.

Linda Longenecker, a Woodsboro resident, said she wants environmental testing to continue, but not when it’s funded by the federal government.

“I just don’t trust when the government wants to perform their own testing, when we the people think they were the problem to start with,” she said.

Longenecker signed the petition. Her family lived in the Rocky Springs Road area, near Fort Detrick, for decades. Her father was an animal caretaker who worked on post.

“I can remember, practically all my life, stories about Fort Detrick,” she said.

Her son and her father both died of cancer.

Her son Rodney Roberson Jr. was diagnosed with leukemia at age 32 and went through five rounds of aggressive chemotherapy.

Though a bone marrow transplant cleared the cancer from his body, his thinned blood triggered a brain aneurysm days later.

Longenecker signed the papers for her son to be taken off life support. He died in 2004, nine months after his initial diagnosis.

“There’s always going to be that doubt,” Longenecker said. “Was it something connected to Detrick?”

Longenecker is hoping the petition will bring awareness to the cancer rate near Fort Detrick and some closure for her family after all of these years.

“It’s a shame that it’s gone this long. [The petition] can’t bring people back, but it sure may save a few if we can push forward with it,” Longenecker said. “And if Detrick is to blame, shame on you. But make it right.”

Cancer took Linda Longenecker’s son and her father. It took Bruce Linton’s wife. And both of Valiree Stine’s parents.

They all lived near Fort Detrick.

Despite two state investigations that didn’t find a cancer cluster, years of failed lawsuits and denied claims, families — the Lintons, the Longeneckers, the Stines and many more — can’t shake the feeling that there’s more to the story.

By Sylvia Carignan, Feb 13, 2016