Cornerstone Care's Medical & Dental Plaza in Burgettstown, Washington County, was evacuated Friday for the third time since the end of March due to strong industrial odors that sickened patients and employees.
County and state agencies, and air quality consultants hired by the Cornerstone, can't find the source of the odors, and Robert MtJoy, Cornerstone chief executive officer, said he will close the medical clinic until they do.
"I have no choice. This is the third time it's happened and it would be irresponsible of me to ask our patients or my employees, who are apprehensive, to come back there before we know what's happening," said Mr. MtJoy.
He said he hopes to reopen the medical clinic and resume seeing patients at a temporary site near the Waterdam Plaza on Route 19 sometime next week, and described the move as "very costly" for the nonprofit rural medical and dental care provider.
Cornerstone serves approximately 1,000 patients on the second floor of the two-story building along Route 18 and employs 50 workers. The Cornerstone dental clinic, on the first floor of the building, has not experienced any indoor odors and will remain open.
Following Friday's evacuation, the Cornerstone Care phone answering machine said the clinic will "remain closed indefinitely" and that its patients would be contacted to reschedule appointments at a later date.
The facility, which provides medical and dental care in rural northern Washington County, was first closed due to the lacquer-like odors on March 28 when patients and health care workers became ill. It reopened but had to close again on April 10. It reopened two days later.
Although there are several Marcellus Shale gas wells located within a mile of the facility and there was recent construction work done in the building, firefighters and hazardous materials personnel from the Washington County public safety department were unable to identify the cause of the odors that led to the first two closings.
The state Department of Environmental Protection is also "perplexed," said John Poister, spokesman for the department's Southwest Regional office.
Mr. Poister said the DEP air program workers did a "walk through" of the medical facility April 27 as well as the closest Marcellus well a quarter mile away but did not smell the odor at either place. He described the odor as an "indoor air issue" even though Mr. MtJoy said DEP has been told the odors have also been smelled outside the building.
Mr. MtJoy said the Cornerstone building is "surrounded" by Marcellus Shale gas operations, and was critical of the DEP and Range Resources -- which owns a four-well pad a little more than a quarter mile from the clinic -- for not responding to his requests to do outdoor air sampling tests.
"We've run extensive tests of our indoor air but they haven't run any air tests outside," Mr. MtJoy said. "I don't know where it's coming from. It's mysterious and it comes and goes, usually in the morning and usually on windy days. People are anxious."
State Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, said he expects the DEP to do a better job responding to the odor complaints, and said the department's oil and gas bureau at the regional office and in Harrisburg haven't been responsive.
"DEP's response has been unacceptable," Mr. White said. "My district just lost one of the only places we have to provide health care and someone needs to provide some answers. Where's the accountability?"
Matt Pitzarella, a Range Resources spokesman, said first mention of odors by the clinic occurred prior to the start of drilling on the closest well, and the well-drilling process uses no substances that would produce the acetone or nail-polish removal smell. He also said the well is too far from the clinic building to produce the kind of concentrated odors that could cause the health reactions reported.
Mr. Poister said the DEP has had no reports of spills or air pollution releases at any of the well sites near the Cornerstone Care building. DEP is considering sending additional inspectors to the facility next week, he said.
On days when the evacuations occurred, Mr. MtJoy said patients and employees complained of itchy eyes, sore throats, elevated blood pressure and pulse rates. On Friday, one employee had an asthma attack.
Cornerstone has eight other medical and dental services offices in Washington, Greene and Fayette counties.marcellusshale - neigh_washington
Don Hopey: email@example.com or 412-263-1983. First Published May 5, 2012 12:00 AM