Pennsylvania Parents Sue FirstEnergy over Girl’s Illness

July 25, 2008

The family of a girl who once asked Santa Claus for a wig to hide her baldness is suing FirstEnergy Generation Corp., saying its coal-fired power plant in Beaver County, Pennsylvania spewed pollution that caused the hair loss and other health problems.

The Bruce Mansfield plant in Shippingport has long been targeted by state and federal regulators, as well as environmental activists who have sued FirstEnergy, claiming the facility continues to violate Pennsylvania pollution standards.

The federal suit filed Monday by Michael and Jessica Hartle said their daughter, who was born in 2003, played daily in her grandparents’ yard about a mile from the plant. They claim the girl suffers from thallium poisoning and exposure to other toxins, and has gastrointestinal and respiratory problems. She had lost all her body hair by December 2006.

Last year, the girl created a “‘wish list’ at school for Santa indicating thereon what she wanted most was a wig. No toys appeared on the Santa wish list,” the lawsuit said. A wig was later donated to the family, according to the suit.

Mark Durbin, a spokesman for Akron, Ohio-based FirstEnergy, said Tuesday that the company’s attorneys haven’t had time to review the lawsuit.

The Hartles’ claim centers on an incident that occurred July 22, 2006, when soot from the plant coated vehicles and more than 300 nearby homes, including the grandparents’ house where the girl played outside that day.

The state Department of Environmental Protection fined FirstEnergy $25,000, the maximum allowed by state law, for the oily soot. Though sampling by the DEP and the company found elevated levels of arsenic, the state agency said no public health hazard occurred.

But the Hartles say FirstEnergy knew the soot contained potentially dangerous chemicals, even though it circulated a “fact sheet” to affected residents saying the soot “is not a hazardous waste.”

The Hartles allowed their daughter to continue to play and sometimes eat her meals in the yard almost daily that summer and fall, “given her parents’ misinformed belief that the yard was safe.”

Attached to the lawsuit is another document from FirstEnergy in August 2006, recommending that residents not eat anything from their gardens for a year and not allow livestock to eat hay in fields covered with the soot.

The lawsuit contends tests showed thallium, mercury, arsenic and other materials were present in the soot “in excess of accepted regulatory residential standards.”

The girl’s doctors have recommended future medical tests on her kidneys, lungs and central nervous system to monitor her exposure to the “toxic and hazardous materials,” the suit said.

The environmental group PennFuture sued FirstEnergy last year, claiming the plant violated visible emissions standards at least 250 times between November 2002 and March 2007. FirstEnergy was already under a state consent decree to clean up the plant before that lawsuit was filed.

FirstEnergy has since asked the state for permission to install monitors in hopes of proving the pollution is not as bad as regulators and environmentalists say.

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