George “Sonny” Markish stood in his yard with a TV reporter in April 2013 and pointed to a towering hill next to his house in LaBelle, Fayette County.
The camera zoomed in on Markish, with slicked-back gray hair, swiping his hand across a window sill coated in a dusty substance.
“When I come out here my eyes begin to water,” he told the Christian Broadcasting Network reporter. “I can taste foul things, and I see dust that is coming from the dump.”
Markish told the reporter he had cancer. So did his wife. He also lost four or five dogs to mouth cancer.
The dump Markish refers to is a site owned by Matt Canestrale Contracting, where coal ash, or “fly ash,” is stored. Coal ash is the fine powdery material that’s left over after coal gets burned at power plants. For years, Markish and other LaBelle residents have said the dump has made them sick.
About a mile away on the other side of the fly-ash dump, an inmate at the State Correctional Institution was watching TV one day.
The channel changed, and there’s Markish and other LaBelle residents talking about coal ash.
The prisoner couldn’t look away.
Marcus Tito Santos had started getting sick at the maximum-security prison in LaBelle in year three of his five- to 10-year sentence. He was imprisoned in 2010 for selling cocaine in his hometown of Harrisburg.
It started with nosebleeds. Santos, who was 41 at the time, said he’d be walking in the prison yard and blood would start pouring from his nose.