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Spotting errors from a glass house

I can't pass up getting a lecture on accuracy from a former Board of Health member who wrongly tried to take credit during his County Board election campaign for getting McCullom Lake's wells tested to calm brain cancer fears.

I read with interest a letter to the editor in today’s paper from former Board of Health President Ed Varga. He calls out the Northwest Herald for some recent mistakes, some small, one quite large in the form of a source who outright lied to us. As well he should be critical – a newspaper’s job is to get it right, and the community it serves deserves better.

Hopefully, Varga's interest in accuracy means he’ll formally retract the claim he made during his unsuccessful County Board race in 2012 – a claim he still has on his website – that it was his guest column in our newspaper that got McCullom Lake’s air and groundwater tested for carcinogens blamed in 33 lawsuits to date for starting a brain cancer cluster.

[UPDATE: As of March 5, Varga has taken the incorrect claim down from his website. He's not very happy with me, but the claim is retracted.]

I never called Varga out on it because he lost in the 2012 primary. But as long as we’re writing letters about the need for accuracy, now is as good a time as any.

As longtime readers may know, I've been writing an award-winning series of stories since 2007 chronicling cancer cluster accusations against chemical manufacturer Rohm and Haas, the Department of Health's boondoggle of a "study" that called an all-clear, and the board of health's shameful response.

Fast forward to 2012, when Varga is running in the Republican primary for McHenry County Board District 4. Among his claims on his campaign website:

"On February 23, 2010, in a guest column which appeared in the Northwest Herald, Ed suggested the County Board pursue environmental testing in McCullom Lake to assure that residents were not currently exposed to suspected cancer causing substances brought to light by pending litigation. After that column appeared, the County Board Chairman secured funding to test both air and groundwater in that community."

This version of events reads as if former Chairman Ken Koehler picked up the paper, read Varga's column (you can find it here), exclaimed, "By Jove, he's right!" and then worked to get the people of McCullom Lake some long overdue peace of mind.

This version of events is also 100 percent, grade-A homogenized wrong.

In a sentence, McCullom Lake's wells and air got tested because Village President Terry Counley had enough of county government screw-ups on the issue, and had more than enough of health department screw-ups on the issue, and demanded that county government find the money to get the wells tested.

What's more, Counley insisted that county health officials, which includes the health board, have absolutely no involvement because they couldn't be trusted.

Here’s an abbreviated account of what really happened, with links to the germane stories.

By summer 2010, Counley was pretty sick and tired of failed attempts by County Board leaders - who finally got involved three years and 27 plaintiffs into the cases - to find outside researchers to investigate the alleged cancer cluster.

Examples of failed efforts included reaching out to a federal agency accused by a Congressional investigative committee of being a shill for polluters rather than an advocate for the citizens, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pronouncing the slipshod work of county and state health officials as valid. I compiled a comprehensive list of shortcomings here.

Knowing that the CDC’s pronouncement wouldn’t satisfy village residents (especially after a judge ruled the county, state and federal research all but worthless and inadmissible at trial), county officials reached out in summer 2010 to environmental and occupational health experts at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who offered to serve as “neutral observers.”

Except they weren’t.

I revealed in my story about the offer that UIC had in fact been involved in the early litigation. The plaintiffs' attorney had hired a UIC epidemiology professor to help develop a study, but she promptly quit after receiving a phone call from a colleague that had been retained by the law firm representing Rohm and Haas.

That was the last straw for Counley – he said enough was enough and told the county to find the money to get the wells tested. After some wrangling – neither Koehler nor Counley were keen on asking their constituents to foot the bill – Koehler reached out to Rohm and Haas itself. The plant announced Aug. 19, a month before the first trial was set to start, that it would pay up to $55,000 to test wells and air. Those tests took place in December 2010 and early 2011, and you can read about the all-clear here.

What further discredits the idea that anyone on the health board can pat themselves on the back for getting this testing done was Counley's repeated insistence that county health officials have nothing to do with the testing:

“I wouldn’t believe them, because of everything starting with the very first meeting when they came out here and told us that everything is all clear, The people here know they were shanghaied. They don't want to hear anything from the county," Counley said in my story.

One thing I've come to respect about Counley is his forthrightness – he lets you know whether he thinks you're a straight shooter or 10 pounds of fertilizer crammed into a 5-pound bag. In several stories he made it abundantly clear what he thought of county health officials, and that his constituents would not believe any test result in which county health officials had even the slightest bit of involvement.

In all of my cancer cluster conversations with Koehler, Counley or current County Board Chairwoman Tina Hill (who grew up in the area and has three childhood friends who developed tumors and sued) – and I had a lot of conversations, believe me – not one of them cited Varga's column as an impetus. The effort to get testing done started more than five months after Varga's column appeared.

In short, Varga's column had nothing at all to do with the environmental testing.

That means that Varga's lecture on accuracy and fact-checking leaves a little something to be desired.

We do our best to correct mistakes like the ones Varga cited in his letter. I've been waiting seven years for our county health officials to correct their mistakes regarding McCullom Lake. I suspect I'll be waiting at least another seven years.

Hopefully, we'll see a correction from Varga by either taking down the election website or deleting any reference to playing a part in coming to the aid of frightened McCullom Lake residents.

Because as long as we're clearing up the record, the board of health has absolutely nothing to be proud of regarding how it handled the situation or treated the plaintiffs.

Senior Writer Kevin Craver can be reached at kcraver@shawmedia.com.

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