Several days a week Fred McNeil waves at folks approaching or leaving Centreville, perhaps hoping that it will convince people to vote for him as County Commissioner in the upcoming election. I can’t help but notice his campaign motto, “Yes, We Can” and I must admit my stomach churns a bit pondering the consequences from the last politician embracing that theme.
One morning, as we waved back, my children inquired if I was going to vote for Mr. McNeil . I told them I couldn’t and they asked why. I explained.
In the winter of 2007, I had a heartbreaking conversation with parents of a child attending Sudlersville Elementary School. They were going through an extremely difficult time as their child was undergoing treatment for cancer. Along with other parents in Queen Anne’s County, it was their feeling that the numbers of children with cancer in our county was unusually high and they wondered why. They suggested that perhaps it was something in our drinking water.
I explained that although the specific cause of their children’s cancer couldn’t be proven, that it could very well be the water. I pointed out that the Town of Centreville had not complied with repeated demands to obey Federal and State law in reducing the high arsenic levels in the Town’s drinking water and that perhaps the same problem existed in Sudlersville. I promised the families I would follow up on the matter.
Over the next month I filed quite a few Public Information Act requests for documents and communication with the Maryland Department of the Environment, the Town of Centreville and the Queen Anne’s County Board of Education. MDE was the most forth coming with the Town of Centreville a distant second. In spite of their obligation under the law to provide my requested documents, our school board was totally uncooperative. It was explained to me that Fred McNeil, spokesperson for Queen Anne’s County Public Schools was in charge of my requests.
With a few days research, I had a stack of documents several inches thick. Of the many facts these documents revealed, one was that the well serving the schools in Sudlersville had the same issue of high levels of arsenic. Furthermore, I discovered that the Maryland Department of the Environment had been repeatedly communicating with then superintendent of our schools, Dr. Bernard Sadusky about the seriousness of the matter. This is a quote from one of those communications:
“The new Arsenic standard was promulgated on January 23, 2001 and Maryland adopted this standard in September 2003. During the past three years, you were regularly informed of the Arsenic Rule compliance date and the options that were available to you. At this point your system is in violation and you need to take one of the following corrective actions: install an approved arsenic treatment, drill a new well to a different aquifer that meets arsenic standard, or connect to a compliant water system. In the meantime, your system remains in violation of State and Federal regulations until one of the above options is selected and implemented.”
Although Dr. Sadusky and the Town Council of Centreville knew I was pursuing the arsenic issue, it was painfully obvious they were going to do nothing to correct the situation. I then took my information to the local newspapers and television stations and the story broke. Fred McNeil, as our school system’s spokesman, explained the whole thing as much ado about nothing. Fred McNeil was not telling the truth!
We have laws preventing us from sending our children to school without proper immunizations. These laws as well as the laws limiting arsenic in our water supply are based on scientific evidence and we are expected to follow them. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention the estimated death rate for chicken pox is 1.4 per 100,000 cases (0.0014%) in normal children. According to the National Academy of Sciences, over a lifetime, consuming the amounts of arsenic found in the water at the schools in Sudlersville would result in the cancer deaths of 1 in 250 people (4%). Consuming the amounts of arsenic found in the water at the schools in Centreville would result in the cancer deaths of 1 in 200 people (5%).
In the days that followed, and with each additional news story, it became obvious that this arsenic issue was gaining in significance. Among other facts, it came to light that, despite his claims, Dr. Sadusky had clear knowledge of his obligations and submitted to MDE an “Application for Exemption (Extension)” from arsenic compliance just weeks before the law’s deadline.
In an effort to quell the public’s concern, Fred McNeil helped organize a press conference on the morning of June 8th, 2007 during which parents were not allowed to comment or ask questions. At this press conference Dr. Sadusky stated categorically, “I met with John Nickerson (environmental health director for Queen Anne’s County) and he confirmed that the water was safe to drink”. At that same press conference when Nickerson was asked if he believed the water was perfectly safe to drink, he replied, “I did not say that.” Nickerson also said, “If you are aware of it (the arsenic levels) you would take action as soon as possible to treat it.” He also stated, “I would have notified the parents.”
One discovery troubled me most. A number of teachers and staff contacted me to reveal they had been provided bottled water for a number of years while the children still drank from the fountains. After classroom hours, I interviewed some teachers and staff in Sudlersville before attempting to do the same at the high school in Centreville. Fred McNeil greeted me within a minute or two of my arrival and informed everyone in my presence that no one was permitted to say a single word to me. I pointed out that he had no legal authority to instruct people not to talk to me. He replied, “Yes, I can.” Everyone became quiet and walked away.
MDE gave Fred McNeil and Dr. Sadusky notification that warning letters should be sent to all parents. Their interpretation was that this was merely a suggestion and they chose not to inform parents. While acknowledging that “everyone would be alarmed” about the dangerous effects of arsenic in the schools’ drinking water, they preferred to keep parents in the dark thereby denying them the right to decide what was best for their children.
At his press conference, Dr. Sadusky stated adamantly and repeatedly that at no time had bottled water or bottled water machines ever been provided for the teachers. Days later I presented my photographs of those “non -existent” bottled water machines to the press. Faced with undeniable evidence, Dr. Sadusky recanted and said he was “misinformed”. A short time later there was a front page story in the local papers entitled “Six Schools To Get Bottled Water”. In that article Fred McNeil, the spokesman for our school system, once again downplayed the situation and stated that the bottled water was being provided as “a good will gesture.” A short time later, Dr. Sadusky resigned.
Before you pull a lever for Fred McNeil, think back to how you and your children were represented by him. Remember the black plastic bags taped over the drinking fountains to keep your children from using them. Remember the bottled water your children were provided until the law was finally obeyed. No big deal Mr. McNeil? Much ado about nothing?
I don’t believe your slogan, “Yes, We Can.” If you changed it to “Yes, I Can”, that I could believe.
Sveinn C. Storm