The suburban town of Ambler, Pennsylvania – just 20 miles from Center City Philadelphia – might seem fairly bucolic to those who drive through in their cars, out for a Sunday journey exploring the city’s neighboring towns.
But, in this case, looks can be deceiving. Ambler, once one of the asbestos manufacturing capitals of the world, is home to two EPA Superfund sites, and those sites still worry those who live nearby, despite decades of attention from the U.S. Government.
A recent update on the sites, penned by Environment and Energy Publishing, mentions the massive mounds of dirt that cover huge piles of asbestos waste left behind by companies that manufactured asbestos-containing products onsite, namely CertainTeed and Federal-Mogul.
As a matter of fact, the dirt and vegetation at the sites hide approximately 1.5 million cubic yards of asbestos or enough – the EPA estimates – to fill 150,000 dumpsters. That’s one of the reasons they left it there. The idea of moving tons and tons of contaminated debris through the streets of Ambler and neighboring towns wasn’t a pleasing scenario, the EPA says.
Yet, the agency must keep sending personnel to the site to make sure those mounds, which include only about 6 inches of fresh topsoil, stay as they are, which isn’t always an easy feat.
“We’ll always see one or two areas when we go out for our inspections where the fence was cut,” says the EPA’s Greg Voigt, who is one of the regular inspectors. He notes that the culprits are usually hunters, bird watchers, and very curious teenagers, perhaps none of whom understand the danger that lurks on the other side of the chain link.
Burrowing animals are also a problem he notes. They make holes on a regular basis, which then need to be refilled with clean dirt.
The fact that a small animal can kick up asbestos under the topsoil has often had residents wondering whether the EPA has done enough. Others worry about the fact that these “White Mountains of Ambler” are only a few hundred yards from the Wissahickon Creek, which feeds into the Schuylkill River, which then flows into the center of Philadelphia.
Furthermore, the EPA protocol for maintaining the safety of the site doesn’t include testing for groundwater contamination.
Sadly, there’s another asbestos dump just down the road from the CertainTeed and Federal-Mogul site. That one is called BoRit, named after the person who owned it most recently- Bob Rittenhouse. This 33-acre parcel, about a half mile from the others, has a 25-foot-high pile of asbestos debris covered by vegetation.
The township wanted to allow the building of a high-rise residence there recently, but the locals fought it, not wanting the land to be disturbed lest more asbestos dust be released. Thankfully, they won the fight.
Pennsylvania has 95 Superfund sites in all, not all contaminated by asbestos. Some are the result of the negligence of chemical plants and the pharmaceutical industry, for example, and many sites were contaminated during the earlier decades of the 20th century, long before the EPA was established and environmental action groups were formed.
However, many who live near asbestos-laden sites and other Superfund locations feel as if the activists have forgotten them. Many have now jumped on the climate change bandwagon, they note, and their obsession with corporate environmental pollution seems to have gone by the wayside, leaving residents to wonder who will care in 10, 20, or 30 years.
Already, the rate of mesothelioma in Ambler from 1992 to 2008 was three times higher than in comparable towns of its size. There’s also a mesothelioma “cluster” of female victims in Ambler, cases likely caused by secondhand exposure to asbestos dust brought home on the clothes of their husbands, fathers, and brothers as few women worked in the town’s asbestos factories.