A terrible waste gets long look
People are asking why a boy died after riding his bike over some sludge
Sunday, June 11, 2000
By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
OSCEOLA MILLS, Pa. -- The hurt is deeper because Tony Behun was so healthy -- an 11-year-old boy who loved life in the perpetual motion universe of an 11-year-old boy.
At her dining room table, his mother holds a stack of family photos, the chronicle of a young life.
There's the scrubbed, sandy-haired boy in his baseball uniform. The grinning youngster at creek-side, fishing. The tame dirt bike he rode across the mountaintops, where Centre and Clearfield counties come together.
Six years ago, life did what life isn't supposed to do to baseball-playing, dirt-bike-riding boys.
It slipped away.
On Oct. 12, 1994, Tony rode his dirt bike across hills coated in a sludge of treated sewage, the soup of waste and nutrients that the state lets strip miners use to coax life back into used-up mines.
In two days, he had a sore throat and headache. Six days later, he was in a hospital emergency room, his fever climbing, doctors calling a helicopter to fly him 110 miles through the night to Pittsburgh.
"Before the helicopter came, he was actually excited about the ride. He said, 'I'll get to tell the kids at school about this,' " said Tony's mother, Brenda Robertson. "Those were our last goodbyes, at Clearfield Hospital."
Tony died at 7:54 the next morning in Allegheny General Hospital.
Doctors determined he was killed by a blood infection, the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus. How he got it was a soul-searing question with no hint of an answer.
Until last year. Brenda Robertson happened to see a newspaper story about a state permit to spread sludge on another idle strip mine. The state Department of Environmental Protection was responding to talk that a local youngster had ridden through treated sludge and died of a bacterial infection.