National Institutes of Health

Robert Adams grew up in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, always interested in the outdoors. As a student at the Ambler campus of Temple University with a major in urban studies and environmental science, he became familiar with the “White Mountains” of Ambler, the piles of asbestos-containing waste material. His first official interaction with the area was as land manager for the Wissahickon Valley Watershed Area (WVWA), where his responsibilities centered on the Green Ribbon Trail and included removing invasive species, restoring wetland, and cleaning up woods and stream. As Director of Stewardship, he now also manages six preserves.

By the time Adams began working for WVWA—twenty years after his college years in Ambler—the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had completed the capping of the White Mountains. The BoRit site had been mostly ignored until a developer wanted to build a seventeen-story high-rise near the McDonald’s. Ambler’s residents objected strongly to such a large building in their small town; the Borough Council wanted the revenue; The WVWA, hoping to buy a reservoir located in the middle of the site, was concerned about proper remediation. The loud and angry debate that ensued forced the Council to undertake its own feasibility study; this study found the project’s expense prohibitive, and the project was dropped. Meanwhile, however, residents realized that the site was full of hazardous asbestos-containing waste, and, led by Sharon McCormick, they formed a protest group called Citizens for a Better Ambler. The EPA also took note of the hazard and formed a community advisory group (CAG), the BoRit CAG, of which Adams was elected co-chair. Many of the members of Citizens for a Better Ambler became the nucleus of the BoRit CAG. As a result of the CAG BoRit has been added to the EPA’s Superfund National Priorities List, and a remediation study is ongoing. After the remediation study there will be a feasibility study and then the actual remediation; all of this, Adams forecasts, will mean a further ten or twenty years before the site is finished.

Adams contrasts Ambler today with the Ambler of his college years. Then the plant had closed, people were unemployed, and businesses were shut down. Ambler was not a happy place. Perhaps at least in part because of the activism inspired by that long-ago seventeen-story high-rise project that never happened, Ambler now is becoming revitalized; the organization Main Street is helping foster business, restaurants, and tourism. Adams believes the Borough is well managed and that Ambler is now a very nice place to live. He hopes that the BoRit site, which is now fenced off, can eventually be more accessible to the residents. He says that other communities might take Ambler’s experience as a call to pay attention to their environments.

Salvatore A. Boccuti grew up in Ambler, Pennsylvania. His father was a tailor, and his mother became a court crier in Montgomery County. He practiced accounting for a number of years but sold his practice to become an aerial photographer; his pictures of BoRit Asbestos Area are found on the Ambler community advisory group's website. As a child he played on the White Mountains of Ambler and played baseball on the field that preceded the post office building. On St. Francis Day, he watched fireworks shot from the piles. He has not contracted any asbestos-caused diseases, and feels he would have by now if he were going to. Boccuti notes Sharon McCormick's fight against a developer who proposed to build a seventeen-story high-rise on what is now the BoRit Asbestos Area. Sharon's public commitment helped to inspire him and when the CAG was formed Boccuti wanted to help. He was a co-chair of the CAG and has served on several of the work groups, currently the rules group. He describes some of the CAG's organization and explains the communication procedures between the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the citizens of the several municipal entities involved. Boccuti discusses remediation at the BoRit site, regretting that the asbestos will not be removed entirely or its chemical structure altered. He believes that it will be capped as the White Mountains were, and that the site will also remain useless for development. He is hopeful that the reservoir, currently being drained, will be cleaned up and refilled to be used as a waterfowl preserve. Boccuti points to the long latency period for asbestos-caused disease, and says that those who have not yet sickened are not likely to do so now. Nightlife is returning; housing is sold before fully built; good restaurants are increasing. Revitalization brings other concerns, namely road structure and parking, but Boccuti is not concerned about present contamination. He does say that the EPA does not do air testing, which causes worry about capped asbestos becoming airborne in the future. He would like to see BoRit become a mixed-use area, but is not optimistic; he says the EPA will do what it wants. When asked what lessons Ambler might provide for other communities, he stresses the importance of good and strong leadership; continual oversight by citizens; and in-depth knowledge. He loves Ambler, which he characterizes as a very nice and safe town, and he hopes for continued growth.