Ambler, PA, is a small borough with a number of old, abandoned asbestos factories. Regularly, people find crumbled pieces of concrete that are later discovered to contain asbestos. In fact, in the most recent piece that was found, the ‘concrete’ was 60% chrysotile asbestos, one of the deadliest forms of the mineral. These discoveries no longer come as a surprise to Ambler residents because the history of asbestos in their area goes way back. What is surprising, however, is that there is a lack of involvement by government authorities.
The discovery wasn’t totally surprising, considering the borough’s history with asbestos, which goes back more than a century. But Reinstein, the co-founder and president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), and residents of this borough said it emphasized the need for further investigation by government authorities into the possible continuing health and environmental hazards.
Ambler and Asbestos
The town is located just outside of Philadelphia and it is the asbestos capital of the country, although other towns are struggling with a similar toxic legacy. Towns like Libby, Montana, for instance, are known all over the country for their high levels of asbestos-related illnesses and deaths.
The very first asbestos textile plant in this country was built in Ambler in 1896 by Richard Mattison. Quickly thereafter, the borough became known as ‘the town asbestos built’.
“Nearly a century of asbestos manufacturing carried the borough of Ambler, Pennsylvania, from bust to boom and back to bust. In recent years Ambler has gotten back on its feet, but its industrial past remains very much present.”
The town was perfect for asbestos factories as it was close to spring water and within easy reach of the Quebec asbestos mines, reachable by railroad. Mattison himself went down in history books as the ‘asbestos king’. He led the town to prosperity, but he also led it to sickness, disease, and death, and that legacy remains. Workers were affected, as were their loved ones, who had to deal with secondhand asbestos exposure.
About 1.5 million cubic yards of waste, heavily contaminated with asbestos, was produced, and this was described as the the White Mountains of Ambler.
“We used to come down here and ride the ‘White Mountains,’ slide on cardboard boxes, and stuff like that, not knowing it was dangerous,” said Flo Wise. She was just 7 years old when she coasted down the waste piles and romped on a nearby playground.”
In 2016, the Environmental Working Group Action Fund released a report stating that rates of asbestos-related illnesses is highest in Ambler compared to anywhere else in the country.
“Asbestos was widely used for much of the 20th century by various industries that played substantial roles in the Philadelphia-area economy and employed thousands of residents, including, shipbuilding, petroleum refineries, steel, textiles and automobile manufacturing, to name just a few. One of the most infamous examples of industrial asbestos production occurred in the town of Ambler, located in Montgomery County.”
The human cost of the problem is immeasurable. It seems everybody is either affected by an asbestos related illness, or knows someone who has. There are many mesothelioma widows, as well as many women who are themselves affected by the disease. Unfortunately, many of those who suffer from the diseases did not even work inside any of the asbestos factories. Rather, they developed it due to the significant levels of environmental exposure in the area. Mesothelioma, asbestos, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer are all rampant in Ambler.
Cleaning Up Ambler
The U.S. Environmental Agency (EPA) is responsible for cleaning up the area, something that they started with some 30 years ago. The EPA has a National Priorities List, to which the Ambler Asbestos Superfund Site was added three decades ago. This meant that Superfund would be available for cleanup.
One of the greatest areas of concern is the Ambler Asbestos Piles Superfund Site. It measures 25 acres and is close to a commercial and a residentail area. In 1986, it made it to the priority list and cleanup was supposedly completed in 1993, with authorities removing it from the list in 1996. Yet this is precisely where the latest piece of asbestos, mentioned earlier was found.
A second site, the BoRit Asbestos Superfund Site, was added to EPA’s national priorities list in 2009, and remains on the list. This site was used from the early 1900s to the late 1960s to dispose of asbestos-containing material that came from a nearby manufacturing plant. It includes an asbestos waste pile, a reservoir and a closed park.
Residents and advocates question whether EPA’s response has been adequate. Community members have been leading cleanup efforts for years, and many feel that the help that the town has received is much less than that received by other areas, such as Libby, Montana, although the problem is just as big, if not bigger in Ambler. In fact, some claim that the EPA engages in nothing but propaganda, leaving sites not cleaned up at all. The first EPA asbestos cleanup was in Libby, although the problem is far greater in Ambler.