Sharon Cooke-Vargas and her two brothers grew up in Ambler, Pennsylvania, after their parents divorced and their mother moved there to be near her own parents. Cooke-Vargas’ grandfather, who died of asbestosis, worked at Keasbey and Mattison Company and then at Upper Darby schools, and her grandmother was a domestic worker; they also owned property in the black communities. Cooke-Vargas’ neighborhood was black, but the schools were integrated, and kids all played together, not noticing differences. She did only a little sledding on the so-called White Mountains of Ambler.
Finding Cheyney University overwhelming, Cooke-Vargas decided to join the US Army; she traveled widely with the Army, becoming a recruiter. After leaving the Army she returned to Ambler, her home town, then to Mount Airy. She owned a tea shop in downtown for a while. Cooke-Vargas says everyone knew about the asbestos, but because it took decades to manifest as a health problem, she was not concerned until the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ordered dumping of the asbestos-containing waste stopped. Though her grandfather died of asbestosis, and was receiving compensation, Cooke-Vargas did not realize the relationship between his death and his work at Keasbey and Mattison Company.
After a developer wanted to build a mixed-use high rise on one of the unremediated piles, as well as witnessing the impact of the flooding in South and West, Cooke-Vargas joined the community advisory group (CAG) as an American Legion member, later becoming a member in her role as tea-shop owner. She feared the high-rise would finally displace the black communities that had been there for generations. Unfortunately, her experience has been that the CAG is ineffective, that the EPA does what it chooses, regardless of the CAG’s wishes. She feels that because the CAG meets outside the affected areas, those residents often do not attend meetings and are therefore less knowledgeable. Cooke-Vargas also believes that because asbestos-related disease manifests so late, it is easier to put off worrying about it and that poor communication from the EPA and the CAG keeps people ignorant of decisions made.
Cooke-Vargas’ strongly-held opinion is that there is no good use for the BoRit Asbestos Area, that South Ambler is not safe anywhere and she would never buy a house there. Flooding is, she thinks, a more urgent problem anyway and should be solved first. The EPA should communicate better and accede to citizens’ wishes about remediation, not acting until its tests are all completed. The West Ambler Civic Association (WACA) began well, wanting to clean up the neighborhood and to provide social programs for both young and old citizens, a place to go, but the Association never really got going. The worry about asbestos has not changed her love of Ambler, however; it is still home, a quaint and interesting town, to Cooke-Vargas.
Beth Pilling grew up in Spring House, Pennsylvania, near Ambler. She remembers the area as being farmland, open and green, with small businesses in the towns. She attended the local public schools until high school, when she went to a private academy in the Chestnut Hill area of Philadelphia. She obtained her degree in horticulture and landscape architecture from Temple University, Ambler. Because Ambler was considered on “the wrong side of the tracks” she had little interaction with it, and she remembers the White Mountains as being just part of the landscape; there was no concern about asbestos then.
Pilling became administrator of the Montgomery County Open Space Program; because open spaces are both local and regional, she became much more involved with a number of aspects of the Borough of Ambler. As representative of Montgomery County she attended all the meetings of Citizens for a Better Ambler and then the community advisory group (CAG). She describes different factions in the CAG and holds that the most active and vocal are those who simply want a cause. She believes that the rejection of the high-rise project reflected concern more with loss of green space and the view than with fear of asbestos. Yet another faction, she says, pushes whatever outcome it desires; here she also notes that she is on the Board of the Wissahickon Valley Waterfowl Association, whose bid for the reservoir would be affected. She does not praise the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) either, saying that it will leave the site contained and safe but useless.
Because the future use group could not agree on anything it was disbanded, and Pilling is pessimistic about the future of the site. She says the EPA should have determined to what use the citizens wanted the site put and remediated to that purpose; or the CAG should have determined what possible uses there could be, and the costs of each use, and chosen one. She feels that the EPA was not good at communicating its requirements and its limits or its other experiences and the CAG was too unwilling to compromise. Still, the CAG has brought the issue to national attention, and the several municipal groups continue to try to work together, despite some loss of civility. Pilling hopes Ambler can keep its local identity but also develop regional appeal as a hub on a greenway.
Anne McDonough grew up in State College, Pennsylvania, the youngest of four daughters. At Pennsylvania State University she majored in biology and environment and in education. She now teaches science at Wissahickon High School. Her husband is a biomedical engineer and pulmonologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. To be close to their jobs they settled in Ambler, which also had the advantage of a small-town feel. Though they knew about the area’s asbestos-containing waste, they decided that the EPA’s remediation had the risk under control. McDonough says that as a scientist she is more concerned about the unknown substances in our everyday lives than about the remediated asbestos. Risk is everywhere, she believes, but people should not live in fear. In the case of the proposed high-rise, though, she thought that digging would send the asbestos airborne, at which point it would become dangerous. McDonough regards her role as being an educator. She was chosen for the REACH teaching project, which involved setting up a website about asbestos; it is a three-year science course for high-school students that she hopes will teach students when and how to become active in their communities, as well as basic science concepts. McDonough talks a little about the changes she has seen since she moved to Ambler, especially the improved economic situation and the increase in college-bound high-school students. She credits the citizens of the various affected boroughs and townships with identifying the asbestos danger and with successfully petitioning for inclusion on the EPA’s National Priorities List; she acknowledges the ongoing oversight by the community. She believes that containment with continuous air monitoring is the best solution. She emphasizes the importance of communication between EPA and community.
Florine Wise was born in her grandmother’s house and grew up in West Ambler, Pennsylvania, near her grandmother and many aunts and uncles. Her parents worked for Sperry Univac; two uncles worked at the asbestos plants. Although Wise was aware of special precautions needed to avoid asbestos exposure, she occasionally went sledding down the piles of asbestos-containing waste, as did most of the children she knew. Wise attended local parochial schools and graduated from Wissahickon High School; she worked as a legal typist/assistant for the Montgomery County Courthouse for a number of years. She has lived in several other places, but she considers Ambler her home town. Two of her children live near Ambler, one in Maryland. Detailing changes she has observed in her community, she notes that West Ambler has not been included in Whitpain Township’s comprehensive development plan; the area only recently got stop signs and sidewalks. She says older communities, many of them generations old, are being uprooted to make way for gentrification. Because of the remediation of the asbestos piles West Ambler’s park was closed; the new Wentz Run Park, built as a substitute, is too far away for West Ambler residents to use, so Wise has been trying—unsuccessfully so far—to get a community center approved Boys and Girls Club, a space for other groups like dance classes, and a place for both young people and senior citizens to hang out. Wise helped establish Citizens for a Better Ambler (CBA) to fight a proposed high-rise on Ambler’s asbestos area. With the advent of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the CBA developed into a community advisory group (CAG), and the ensuing debate over remediation caused a split between Sharon McCormick’s faction, who advocated total removal of asbestos, and Wise’s, who wanted capping. Wise points out that removal of asbestos would mean many years of continuous truck traffic, with uncontrolled asbestos exposure, and increased flooding, all in the African-American neighborhoods of West Ambler. Despite these disagreements, Wise says things are going well with the CAG, and she is now the head of the environmental justice committee of the CAG. Although she laments the demise of community cohesion, the indomitable Wise continues the dedication to service practiced by her mother, an informal community leader. She is now involved with Chuck Colson’s Angel Tree, through the Presbyterian Church; this group helps keep prisoners bonded with their children. She emphasizes the importance of communication among citizens and believes that a community center would expedite such communication in Ambler. Her objectives include improving the safety and appeal of Ambler for its residents, especially by improving infrastructure and preventing flooding.
Ruth Tate Weeks, aka Ruthy, was born and raised in West Ambler, Pennsylvania. Ruthy was one of eight children; her parents worked locally, and much of her extended family lived close by. Her neighborhood was racially mixed, composed of mostly African-Americans and Italians, and she did not experience or witness any discrimination. When Ruth was growing up, West Ambler was much more of a small, close knit community with several small convenience stores and deli’s. These stores were frequented by the residents and many of the owners lived in or near these stores. She remembers sledding down the “White Mountains,” not realizing the impact the asbestos factory would have on many people living in Ambler. Ruth married her high-school sweetheart and together, with their newborn, they moved to Germany for her husband’s military service. After five years of living in Europe and California, Weeks and her children returned to Ambler. Ruth attended classes at the Lansdale School of Business while raising her children. She discusses the community activism and involvement led by Florine Tate Wise, who encouraged her to get more involved in the West Ambler Civic Association, also known as WACA, which she founded and organized during the summer of 2003 and presided over until she relocated to Maryland. Florine was also a Stockholder member of the Community Advisory Group (CAG), where she represented the West and South Ambler Communities of Ambler Borough and Whitpain Township. Florine helped establish Citizens for a Better Ambler (CBA) to fight a proposed high-rise on Ambler’s asbestos area. With the involvement of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in remediation of the site, the CBA developed into a community advisory group (CAG), and the ensuing debate over remediation caused a split between Sharon McCormick’s faction, who advocated total removal of asbestos, and Florine’s, who advocated capping for the community in hopes that the playground would be opened at the end of the remediation of the site. Ruth was also involved in some of the pilot interviews for the REACH Ambler project, as many of her friends and relatives have a long history in Ambler. Ruth discusses the redevelopment of Ambler and how much it has changed since she was a resident; there isn’t space for children to play and if there is a senior center, she hasn’t been able to find it. She hasn’t seen much assistance from the EPA and Penn to truly identify the continued risk and conditions of Ambler; she believes that asbestos continues to be considered as the “white elephant” in the room at current and future planning meetings that involved the South and West Ambler communities.
Victor Romano was born in Abington, Pennsylvania, but grew up in Ambler, Pennsylvania. His neighborhood consisted of mostly Italians and African-Americans, and he claims there was no prejudice. His father sold produce from his truck; his mother was a housewife. His only sister as since passed away. During Romano’s childhood, Ambler was a nice blue-collar town, pretty much dependent on Richard Mattison and his asbestos shingle factory, Keasbey & Mattison (K&M) for employment and, for some workers, for housing. Businesses stretched along Main Street; there was a trolley and then a train to Philadelphia and to other nearby towns. Romano describes the good sledding on the seventy-foot-high waste dumps at the factory and says kids swam and fished in the reservoir from which the factory drew its water and to which it sent the water back; at that time the reservoir was unpolluted. He talks about the exemption for essential war work that K&M had for its workers, and its pride in winning an Army-Navy “E” Flag. When Romano returned from military service and settled in Ambler with his wife, the town had already begun its decline. K&M closed, and workers dispersed to other localities for jobs, though many continued to live in Ambler. Businesses dependent for custom on K&M’s workers also disappeared. The first deaths known to be from asbestosis were occurring. Romano was in a good position to evaluate all of this as he had become involved in real estate investments. A high-rise project, ultimately rejected, brought to light the asbestos hazard in the “White Mountains,” Romano’s childhood sledding piles of asbestos-containing waste material. Romano’s sister, a member of the Borough of Ambler Council, and Romano’s uncle, a chemist at the Navy Yard of Philadelphia, were instrumental in persuading the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to remediate the Ambler piles. Romano’s uncle also had his own chemical lab and tested the area well water, as he was worried about runoff from the factory. Even with the National Priorities Listing of the BoRit site in Ambler, as well as the now-remediated piles, no one in Romano’s circle has been sickened. He is not concerned about having lived and played amidst all the asbestos, and he would not fear having his grandchildren living there. He does, however, worry about Amchem, another chemical factory in Ambler. Romano does not know what Amchem produced, but it killed many maple trees around the factory; there was an explosion at the factory fairly recently; and lawsuits continue. Nevertheless, Romano feels that Ambler is a good place to live; real property is less expensive, there are good restaurants, and night life is returning. If only there were more parking!
Fred Conner, Jr., grew up in Northeast Philadelphia. Having majored in economics at Upsala College, Conner served in the Marine Corps for twelve years and then as a defense contractor in the Balkan countries and Kuwait. Marriage brought him back to Pennsylvania. He and his wife settled in Whitpain Township, and Conner became Director of Facilities and Economic Development Officer at Rosemont College and then took an MS degree in Community and Regional Planning (CRP) from Temple University. There followed a natural progression into local volunteer work and public service. Conner first became aware of the asbestos-containing waste of the White Mountains and the BoRit site through an Open Space study he developed at Temple CRP, a study that brought together the five affected municipalities, two school districts, and Montgomery County for the purpose of open space planning and remediating Wissahickon Park. Eventually this led to his involvement with a community advisory group, the BoRit CAG. Conner, who had been on the Planning Commission and Zoning Hearing Board of Whitpain Township and was now chair of the Township Board of Supervisors, was considered by some to be Whitpain’s unofficial expert on BoRit, and he became the first co-chair of the CAG. The CAG, which had twenty-six stakeholders, was overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which put BoRit on its National Priorities List (NPL). Conner says that many of the original recommendations of the CRP study have been implemented successfully. Now that BoRit has been mostly capped what to do with the area is the question, and a feasibility study is underway. Because it is at the confluence of the Rose Valley, Tannery Run, and Wissahickon Creeks, West Ambler bears the brunt of serious flooding with contaminated water. Conner says the situation has been ameliorated somewhat, and while they wait for the results of the feasibility study, they have made some improvements to West Ambler’s general quality of life: road paving, sidewalks, stop signs, and some new residential construction is underway. Conner believes that complete removal of the asbestos-containing material from the site is probably not practicable, but he thinks that a green and open space park could do quite well there. Perhaps the park could even include athletic fields and playgrounds and some other uses. Conner suggests that other communities facing contamination problems should establish a multijurisdictional organization and convene a forum with a neutral facilitator to help them consider all views. They should seek and use expert advice. Conner feels that there is no longer a health risk because the EPA and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection monitor the site, continuously checking the air quality. The EPA involvement has made residents less fearful. The quality of life in West Ambler and nearby communities is better now but much more needs to be done.
Eduardo Rovira received a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Puerto Rico. Shortly after college he began working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He spent six years as an oil inspector and then became an on-scene coordinator (OSC) in the five-state region that includes Pennsylvania. When he was called in to perform the initial assessment of the BoRit Asbestos Site, he recommended more sampling of air and water especially. Although a full year of testing found that asbestos risk was too low to require intervention, the EPA decided to list the site on the Superfund National Priorities List anyway. Their justification was that there were both visible and hidden asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) that could potentially be made hazardous by people or weather.
Rovira describes the different processes involved in remediating Wissahickon Creek, Rose Valley Creek, and Tannery Run Creek. Though they have most elements in common, there were some variations of treatment. Wissahickon Creekís channel was widened and its banks were stabilized by clearcutting vegetation, including all trees. Then the area was leveled and covered with geocells, then topsoil, hydroseeding, riprap, and straw mats to prevent erosion. When Rose Valley's cable concrete mats (CCMs) were destroyed by a tropical storm the EPA replaced the original CCMs with stronger, better-anchored CCMs with riprap. Tannery Run had to be partially routed through an eight-foot pipe to preserve a collapsing parking lot, and the Run also required CCMs. Remediation away from the creeks did not require these more extreme measures; the area was clearcut and then covered with geo-fabric, topsoil, straw mats, and vegetation. The EPA is now dredging the reservoir to test the ground underneath; the water will be treated and discharged to the Wissahickon Creek. When this process is complete, water will be pumped back into the pond and vegetation will be replanted, in the hope of inducing birds to return.
Rovira explains his communication with the citizens of the area; he says he sends a weekly email update, and he is available for questions at any time. Even invasive activities have not produced hazardous levels of asbestos, and peopleís fears have decreased with the years of cleanup. Rovira thinks that capping is the safest and ultimately the cheapest method of remediation. He points out that the Ambler piles were hilly and did not lend themselves to development, but the BoRit site is flat and will be suitable for whatever purpose the citizens choose, probably a park; he believes this remediation will be completed in about a year and a half. Amblerís experience should, in his opinion, remind other communities to be involved early, to have good leaders, and to try to understand the issues involved.
Gioia Smith has lived in Ambler all her life. Her father worked at Merck Sharp & Dohme, and her mother was a companion. She worked for most of her life in the social service department at Head Start and is active in the NAACP, the American Legion, and her church.
Smith first became aware of Ambler's asbestos hazard when the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began its cleanup of the Ambler Asbestos Area. She began attending EPA meetings then; she thought the asbestos warnings were frightening, but they did not discourage anyone from moving to Ambler, and she thought the piles were permanently fixed. When a proposed high-rise on the BoRit site brought the asbestos fears to the forefront again Smith still worried more about displacement of the nearby poor people and about taxes. She has some extended family in South Ambler.
Smith laments the loss of the small-town feel of Ambler, what her grandmother called "the Village," describing all the old small businesses that are gone now. She says that the revitalization of the town is due mainly to restaurants and to outsiders who come mostly from Manayunk; she would like to see more Amblerites enjoy their town and get to know each other again.
Smith continues to attend meetings of the BoRit community advisory group (CAG),though it has moved its meetings from the American Legion hall to Upper Dublin Township. Her cousin, Otis Hightower, is also very active. She feels that the CAG does not reach out to the whole community, that those who are uninvolved need to be better informed; she has suggestions for how to reach them, emphasizing that face-to-face is most effective. She receives occasional EPA publications, she says, but others do not. Smith thinks that the site should remain fenced off, that there is no guarantee of safety strong enough to permit development. Nevertheless, Smith believes that asbestos is only at about the mid-level of Ambler's problems; people do not take it seriously because it does not affect their daily lives. She ranks unemployment highest, followed by the high cost of housing; the lack of places for kids to hang out and things for them to do; and the high cost of child care. She wants churches and neighborhood groups to come together to help solve these problems.
John Zaharchuk grew up in Newburgh, New York. He attended Bucknell University and obtained a Master's in Business Administration from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He and his wife-to-be, who lived in Upper Dublin Township, used to meet at the Ambler train station, eventually marrying and moving to Fort Washington, Pennsylvania. Zaharchuk thus became familiar with Ambler as he drove between home and work. He discusses the depressed and depressing state of Ambler at the time, saying he would never stop for food there. He first began to notice businesses returning in the mid-2000s, and he says that now there is such a resurgence of vitality in the town that parking is a challenge. When his children's school was looking for a new building, Zaharchuk suggested the old boiler house on the Keasbey & Mattison factory property; he had been thinking about the building for development. When the school rejected the idea, Zaharchuk gave up for a while. A successful project with a similar property in Wilmington, Delaware, and a friend who insisted that he must reconsider, finally convinced Zaharchuk. With Borough officials he gathered private and public investors and held informational meetings for local residents. Although they wanted the boiler house saved and were supportive of his ideas, the residents were leery of the asbestos, so Zaharchuk's project removed it all, even having to clean each brick by hand. The Ambler Boiler House is a successful Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building whose environment attracts tenants and where Zaharchuk plans to keep his own office; its green features include a geothermal system, windows, and building automation. Zaharchuk is currently building a series of apartments on another piece of the Keasbey & Mattison property. The major contaminant there is magnesia, which has determined the footprint of the building. Asbestos would have been easier to deal with, as it requires only capping to be safe and stable. Zaharchuk is also talking to other property owners in the area, especially the BoRit site, with a view to developing more of Ambler. He says that Ambler is only about half redeveloped, and that his experience with contaminated property is valuable. After the first remediation in Ambler when people first learned about the dangers of asbestos, investors kept away, contributing to Ambler's economic decline, but people no longer fear remediation, and they want more improvement. In fact, says Zaharchuk, a challenge these days is to find parking in the up-and-coming Ambler.
Bernadette Dougherty grew up in Abington, Pennsylvania, moving to Ambler after her marriage. She attended Temple University, Ambler, for two years, returning later to complete a degree in community and regional planning. Her family still lives nearby. In addition to having three young children, Dougherty became active in the Wissahickon Valley Historical Society, for whom she wrote the history of Ambler's second hundred years. She served on the Borough of Ambler Council for two years, during which time she helped save the movie theater and the train station, two historic buildings. She served on a number of other boards. When the asbestos plant closed, Ambler's economy declined, and Dougherty was galvanized into action, attempting to recruit new and save old businesses and buildings. She bought property herself, attracting in a coffee shop and a brewpub. When she served on the Zoning Board she was able to get the rail corridor rezoned residential, with the result that there is now much more housing, all filled. She joined the Main Street project, writing a grant proposal for state funds, and eventually she became project manager. During this time of property management Dougherty became more concerned about the hazards of asbestos. Developers who proposed a seventeen-story high-rise on what is now BoRit Asbestos Area lobbied Dougherty hard; at first she was in favor of it, but when the developers disparaged the citizens' intelligence and knowledge regarding the asbestos, she turned against the project. This high-rise project caused residents to form a protest group that became an EPA community advisory group (CAG), and they were able to get the site listed on the National Priorities List. Dougherty was on the future use committee of the CAG, and felt that the members were well-informed and involved. She has found the EPA thorough and is comfortable with their decisions. She believes very strongly that capping is preferred to removal; that capping would remove what little concern she feels about asbestos. Dougherty thinks that her community and regional planning degree has given her insight into what questions to ask. As a result she thinks that perhaps flooding [of Wissahickon Creek] is a greater danger than asbestos, assuming proper remediation. She hopes more citizens will become involved; she recommends that other communities with similar problems become aware and involved early. She would like to see the waterfowl preserve established and a park rebuilt. She thinks the residents nearest BoRit should have most involvement and input. Dougherty cites Sharon McCormick and Gordon Beck as good examples. Most crucial is to ask if the community is better off with the remediation than before it.
James Feeney grew up in Philadelphia and earned degrees in chemical engineering and biological sciences. He left the private sector to become a remedial project manager for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Ambler asbestos piles became one of first projects. The piles had by that time been put on the EPA's Superfund National Priorities List (NPL), and the investigation was mostly complete. Feeney spent a year becoming familiar with the project and the prior negotiations over cleanup costs with the owners. At that point his job was to approve the design specifications of the remedies and then oversee their implementation, and he made his first trips to the sites when the work began. Because of their differing compositions, the three piles, Locust Street pile, Plant pile, and Pipe Plant pile, had two somewhat different treatments, as Feeney describes; basically, however, the treatment was "capping," or covering the pile with a thick layer of dirt and vegetation and then adding a covering to protect against erosion and, as necessary, gabion barriers or revetments alongside waterways. Feeney goes on to detail the operation and maintenance procedures entailed, explaining that EPA will monitor the sites forever. The site was deleted from the NPL after three years instead of the usual five because it is completely contained and qualifies as a closed disposal site, but it is still inspected by the EPA. The Pipe Plant Pile, or CertainTeed Pile, consists primarily of broken asbestos cement pipe and was covered with soil and vegetation. The other two piles consist of slurry, a suspension of magnesium or calcium carbonate, which naturally forms a flat top. These piles also are covered with dirt and rocks, but they have a semipermeable cover to allow some water in to prevent drying out. Feeney points out that the slurry is the waste from processing dolomite; the asbestos came from Canada, not around Ambler, and composes only five to fifty percent of the slurry. piles are inspected annually or semiannually. Animal burrows are filled in; trees removed; and fences, gabions, and revetments repaired. Asbestos fibers must be airborne to be hazardous. Since the piles are covered and intact, no air testing is done. The piles cannot be removed, but they are safe and continue to be monitored by the EPA. Every five years there is a review of the annual inspections; the review is published online, and there is a summary advertisement. Feeney has several observations about Ambler. He feels that the community was less involved than others he knows of, including the nearby BoRit site, though that might be because now involvement is much easier. He says that asbestos is a unique challenge because it is not degradable; its control has different and specific regulations; this makes the choice of remediation method easier. He does not feel he knows the Ambler community well enough to generalize about lessons for others. He thinks that people's attitudes toward the EPA have changed since he first began; that people sometimes feel skeptical or even hostile about the EPA's limits and capacities. Feeney strongly emphasizes that the asbestos proportion of the waste is low, that the piles are finished and safe; that he feels no personal risk whatsoever, even when inspecting the sites. He says it is a job well done.
Tim Hughes grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, one of eight children whose father was a surgeon. Hughes took a degree in business from St. Francis University and started his own business, which has thriven and expanded. He now lives in Whitpain Township. Hughes first heard about asbestos hazard when he bought a house in Ambler, but asbestos was only vaguely mentioned; the two remediated piles were considered safe, and the three remaining piles were unnoticed or ignored. By coincidence, his father, a thoracic surgeon, might have treated early cases of asbestos-related disease. Hughes first became really aware of asbestos when a developer petitioned to build a seventeen-story high-rise on one of the unremediated piles. Hughes put together a flyer with pictures of how the high-rise would make Ambler look, and he and his wife distributed the flyers to as much of the citizenry as they could. Many people became concerned then, and Citizens for a Better Ambler (CBA) was formed. The CBA paid for a feasibility study that demonstrated the infeasibility of the developer's promise to "take care of" the asbestos, and after a year the Borough of Ambler Council vetoed the high-rise; by then, however, the CBA's research, aerial photos, money spent, signatures gathered, and legal advice had persuaded the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to put the site on the National Priorities List (NPL), and the site became BoRit Asbestos Area. At that point the EPA formed a community advisory group (CAG), with CBA as its nucleus. Hughes credits Sharon McCormick with much of the hard work. Hughes remained on the CAG for a year or so and is generally pleased with the remediation done so far. He keeps up with the CAG's activities through emails from Robert Adams; he thinks Ambler is safe from asbestos right now, but points out that Kane Core, the proposed high-rise location, has not changed. Hughes considers flooding to be Ambler's main problem right now. The town's revitalization has also led to a dearth of parking. He says that the Boiler House is a beautiful and ecologically friendly example of this revitalization; Richard Mattison's former mansion grounds are being developed into homes and condominiums, and the mansion itself retained. Hughes says the most important lesson for other communities is to discover the truth and to promulgate it; the CBA members were dismissed at first, but they persevered, and now Ambler residents are well-informed about asbestos problems. He also thinks that continuing institutional oversight is crucial, pointing out the decay of the previous remediation. He is very proud of the CBA-turned-CAG's accomplishments and success and of his role in that success. He is proud of the friends he made as a result of his involvement and proud of the citizens of Ambler.
Sharon McCormick grew up Northeast Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, moving to Ambler when her children were adolescent. She chose Ambler for its walkability, quaintness, and neighborhood feel. At that time she did not know about the asbestos dumps there. McCormick first became interested in local politics when she opposed a merger of police departments. She increased her involvement when the Borough Council wanted to permit a high-rise on the BoRit Asbestos Area. She immersed herself in research about asbestos and the previous EPA remediation in Ambler. She encountered the frustration of dealing with a bureaucracy, but she persevered, helping fund Citizens for a Better Ambler and then the BoRit community advisory group (CAG). The high-rise was defeated, and BoRit was put on the National Priorities List of the EPA's Superfund sites. More importantly, other residents became educated and were also galvanized to demand more comprehensive containment and monitoring of the waste. McCormick was elected to the Borough of Ambler Council, where she hopes to continue informing people of health risks and to keep the EPA working as she thinks they should. She feels that if the seventy-two acres of the former asbestos factory were cleaned up entirely, natural water courses would solve flooding problems and provide a draw for future manufacturing. She does not think that covering the sites with geofabric and layers of dirt is adequate containment, and has been championing full removal and new technology to accomplish this task since 2009. She is accepting of being known as a "crazy lady" for chasing children out of the polluted creeks and dumps, and for telling people not to smoke around asbestos. McCormick has taken pictures of the waste still extant and has compiled statistics of the area's deaths and illnesses due to asbestos. Ambler is enjoying a revitalization, however, and no one wants to discourage incomers or visitors, so McCormick is sometimes told to be quiet. She fights repeatedly against the appellation "acceptable risk," which she insists does not mean "safe." Nevertheless, McCormick loves living in Ambler. She likes the diversity, the schools, the neighborliness, and she is optimistic about the ultimate results of all her efforts.
Helen DuTeau has been working with Superfund community involvement programs in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for more than twenty years. She explains the law itself and its revision (Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA)) that included community involvement as an important factor in educating and engaging communities throughout the cleanup process. She describes the process of designing a community involvement plan and the points at which the community is encouraged to comment on the EPA's work. DuTeau has to balance communities' interests with the requirements of the law, and she often has to balance competing and sometimes hard-fought opinions within a community. She emphasizes that flexibility is the key to a successful remediation, one attuned to the wishes of the people who must live with and use the site. Most often a community forms a community advisory group, or CAG, which formally elects leaders and structures its own meetings; in these meetings citizens voice their concerns about safety, their preferred method of remediation, and their hopes for the purpose of the site after remediation is complete. The meetings are open to the public, and an EPA representative—usually the Remedial Project Manager and Community Involvement Coordinator for the site—attend each meeting. Communication between EPA and CAG is crucial, especially in the early stages, though the internet has greatly simplified and expanded communication during later stages. DuTeau oversees community involvement activities for Superfund in region three; one of these sites is BoRit in Ambler, Pennsylvania, where asbestos-containing waste materials were accumulated. She says BoRit has an active and knowledgeable CAG. BoRit also covers several municipal jurisdictions whose interests are not always aligned; West Ambler, the community nearest and most directly affected, has two representatives in the CAG. Although the remedial investigation and feasibility study are not yet complete, the EPA has done extensive removal work at the site and residents are looking forward to a restoration of Whitpain Park.
Gordon Chase grew up in London, England. He worked for Shell International Petroleum Company and then smaller companies, trading oil and petrochemical products, until he retired to travel. A visit to Kathmandu, Nepal, inspired an interest in pollution control, and he obtained a BSc (Hons) degree in environmental studies and diploma in pollution control from The Open University. Chase met his wife in Boston, Massachusetts, and the couple moved to Ambler, Pennsylvania, to be near her parents. Chase joined the BoRit community advisory group (CAG), is now chair of the Removal, Remediation, and Monitoring workgroup, and was later elected as co-chair of the CAG. He first became aware of Ambler's asbestos problems when a high-rise development was proposed. Surprised that BoRit was not remediated at the same time as Ambler's asbestos piles, he talks about EPA's monitoring and testing procedures. Chase acknowledges a tension between private and public interests as represented by the differing opinions among members of the CAG, but he regards Ambler's reticence to confront its asbestos as a "malaise" reflecting a general "malaise" in much of the United States on issues ranging from liquor sales to power lines to derelict buildings to infrastructure repairs. Chase hopes for open green space for BoRit. He says people who live near highways are often more at risk from pollution than from contained asbestos. He feels that communication between the CAG and EPA is generally good; EPA gives the CAG weekly reports of what they have done and informs them of what they propose to do. Chase wishes Ambler would agree to have its water tested for a number of chemicals that have turned up nearby, but the Borough feels this unnecessary. Chase has a positive view of Ambler in that its citizens fight hard for what they want; but acknowledges that private interests can sometimes conflict with the public good. Ambler's main challenge now is to change from a manufacturing town to a service or bedroom/commuter town. Chase believes that asbestos is now a problem of industrial blight as well as a health hazard. Chase has found some government agencies better than others, but acknowledges that they all have limitations and requirements prescribed by law.
Gregory Cooke grew up in West Ambler, Pennsylvania, one of three children of a single mother. His childhood community was all black. He attended the local public schools and liked to swim in the creek, bike, fish, and hunt with his grandfather. After eight years as chaplain's assistant in the US Army, Cooke moved back to nearby North Hills, Pennsylvania, with his wife and young son. After he and his wife divorced Cooke lived in Ambler with his grandparents for seven years. During that time he worked as a heat treater, but he also obtained a social work degree from Villanova University and began his practice in Philadelphia Senior Center. Cooke and his sister, Sharon Cooke Vargas, opened a tea shop in Ambler, and there Cooke met Edward Emmett, who hired Cooke to interview residents of Ambler for the REACH pilot program. He helped interview seventy or eighty residents; most had lived near and played on the huge piles of waste without awareness of or concern about asbestos's dangers, though some had contracted asbestosis. Cooke's own grandfather died of mesothelioma, and Cooke and his fellow descendants received settlements from a class action lawsuit. Today Ambler is "up and coming," says Cooke; businesses may appear one year and disappear the next, but then another new place appears. Demographics are changing. Cooke thinks that the Environmental Protection Agency is taking too long to clean up the hazard and is not good at communicating with Ambler's citizens. He would like to have all the waste removed, not just capped, despite the many years of inconvenience that would cause, and would like a recreation area on the remediated site. He has left the REACH project and is currently working with Lisa Jacobs and Frances Barg on a University of Pennsylvania project studying the health of Ambler's residents.
Susan Curry moved to Ambler, Pennsylvania in 1998. Wanting to live sustainably, she joined Alliance for a Sustainable Future, took a master's degree in environmental studies and psychology, and joined the newly founded Ambler Environmental Advisory Council (EAC), a committee appointed by the Borough of Ambler Council. This prompted her attendance at Borough Council meetings. She also won a grant to develop policies to manage the care of the trees downtown. Curry moved to Ambler just as a five-year review by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the remediated asbestos piles found everything all right. She had not previously been aware of the asbestos hazard. She feels she lives too far from the piles to be affected, and asbestos-caused diseases are too slow-growing to harm her. She worries about demolition of the Borough's remaining older buildings, which have asbestos siding. Curry talks about her role in the establishment of the community advisory group (CAG) when the EPA listed the BoRit Superfund site on the National Priorities List, and she explains the structure and workings of the CAG. Curry describes the CAG meetings, with their occasional disputes among the different interests represented. She believes that most people are not sure there even is a risk from the asbestos; others feel that every fiber must be removed entirely; the West Ambler citizens, closest to the piles, generally do not attend meetings. To complicate matters, there is apparently a change in the science regarding asbestos fibers. Curry thinks the EPA's hundred-year-storm standard for remediation is not adequate; she wants EPA to use a five-hundred-year storm standard. She had belonged to the Removal and Remedial Monitoring workgroup of the CAG and thinks that they should be requiring the EPA to test the ground under the pond, which is now having the water removed and cleaned, for all kinds of toxic substances. She praises Salvatore Boccuti's aerial photos of the site; information is also available from the EPA's weekly reports; from the on-site coordinator, Eduardo Rovira; and from the website. Her ambition to produce another report from the CAG was rebuffed. The Ambler movie theater renovation was the big attraction for Curry. She agrees that the town is vibrant; in fact, parking is a problem now. All of this is a result of good community efforts and strong local leaders, like the current Borough Manager. She believes asbestos is not a concern for most people. She hopes for progressives on the Borough Council. Curry wants Ambler to be a self-sustaining community. Asked what lessons Ambler has for other communities, Curry stresses the importance of establishing a CAG, getting aerial photos, demanding quarterly tours of the remediation. Communities should research previous Superfund sites. Be sure the EPA does not define too small an area for the site boundaries. Make use of Technical Assistance Services for Communities (TASC) for gathering and interpreting information. Curry finishes her interview with a few more thoughts about Ambler's experience, a few more worries about DEP's permitting process, and a lot more hopes for an increase in the Borough Council's interest and role.
Jack DelConte grew up in South Ambler, Pennsylvania. His father worked at Keasbey & Mattison, as did his grandfather and an uncle; only his uncle and a cousin have developed asbestosis. He remembers Ambler as a thriving town until about the time he returned from the Air Force, when K&M had left and the town began its economic slide. The hills of waste materials were good for sledding; kids and catfish swam in the reservoir; on St. Francis Day Sons of Italy set off fireworks from the top of the “dump”; the neighborhood was Italian and close-knit; there was baseball on the field that now holds a Post Office.
Having returned from the Air Force and a few years working in Washington, D.C., DelConte and his wife settled in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. The “dumps” had been cleaned up and carted off; not many people were sick, and generally people just accepted illness. DelConte was hired to demolish and refurbish some of the old Wyndham Hotel, which had deteriorated badly. A whole wall collapsed from water damage; the basement was only dirt; there were jerry-built rooms on the upper floors. When the construction was complete DelConte, who had restaurant and bar experience, was hired to manage the hotel’s restaurant, 34 East Tavern. The restaurant had been an Irish pub but is now a family place.
Although the dangers of asbestos are now known, most people DelConte knows are fatalistic about the probability of harm. When asked his opinion about the BoRit site, DelConte says he trusts the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to be capping it properly, as they did with the “dumps.” Furthermore, he thinks that attempting to remove all the asbestos is impossible, as it will have been dispersed everywhere by weather and flooding. He feels that the seventeen-story high-rise that caused the initial concern at BoRit was probably a good idea; that Ambler could use more housing. Otherwise, he says, Ambler is progressing nicely. There are eleven or twelve restaurants, all with good food. There are a playhouse, a symphony, parades, art festivals, nice new houses near the train station. All the new businesses help the whole town prosper. Despite all these changes, however, he says that there is still the old community feel.
Carol Ann DiPietro's mother's families (Rocchino and Zangrone) left Maida, Italy, to settle in Ambler, Pennsylvania, where her great-grandfather and grandfather worked in the asbestos factory, Keasbey & Mattison Company. Her mother worked there as a secretary and tells of white dust visible in the air and settling all over clothing. A parting gift from the company was a box of raw asbestos, which Carol took to kindergarten show and tell. At that time, however, asbestos was not known to be a hazardous material and no Rocchino relatives died of asbestos-related diseases. Though Carol lived too far from the White Mountains, she had cousins who played there. DiPietro worked at the Ambler Fashion Shop from age fifteen until the store closed in the mid 1990s. During that period the main commercial street was so busy that a traffic policeman was needed on Friday nights. The decline of the town center began with the building of the mall in the 1970s; then CertainTeed Corporation moved out of Ambler. When IMS and a law firm moved away the decline steepened into the 1990s. Fortunately, the real estate market was still good, and crime was still low. When a large high-rise project was proposed for Kane Core, the asbestos problem came to light. DiPietro was living in Lower Gwynedd Township and began attending the high-rise meetings. She says the meetings over the high-rise were contentious over the dominance of the large building, not so much over asbestos. She became interested in the asbestos question, though, and began to attend BoRit community advisory group (CAG) meetings as well. Eventually she was appointed to the Planning Commission. DiPietro compares Ambler's Planning Commission with that of Lower Gwynedd, on which she had also served. She thinks that the CAG's function to provide information about asbestos remediation has dwindled, due in part to the EPA's office nearby and to asbestos fatigue. She thinks the EPA should have done more for Ambler back in the 1980s when the remedy of capping the White Mountains was chosen. She wishes the asbestos at the BoRit site could be taken completely away and points out that much of the same disturbance occurred during the removal action as would have occurred during hauling away. She wants very much to see the six-acre wasted space made into a park-like area. DiPietro is proud of the friendly, dog-walking neighborhoods of Ambler; proud of the town's revival; and proud to be contributing by serving on the Planning Commission.