Jimmy Hoffa’s Grave, Sledding on E-Waste and a Lamb Named Snowball

Week Five began like the past several weeks -- in New Jersey -- but by the end we found ourselves in the middle of a cluster of Superfund sites and heavy industry near the intersection of Routes 80 and 81 in eastern Pennsylvania. I was eager, as you know, to get out of New Jersey, but what I found when I crossed the state line was quite a jolt, to say the least. The landscape and its residents in this anthracite coal region have taken a huge toxic hit. People are eager to share the history of this place as well as see change in their lifetime.

Many persons contributed to the writing of this email recap and I would like to thank them: Sue Sturgis, Joe Murphy, Dr. Dante Picciano, Dr. Peter Baddick and Louise Calvin. Because I received so much input and there is such a long history to tell, this week’s recap is lengthy and it still reads to me more like a film trailer (you pick the genre) than the full feature. But, PLEASE, read through till the end -- this tale is fascinating and worth the extra few minutes.

On Day 32, we visited our first Superfund site in Pennsylvania, the Palmerton Zinc Pile.The site is a result of 70 years of zinc smelting by the New Jersey (and you thought we were done with that state!) Zinc Company, which emitted huge quantities of heavy metals throughout the valley. As a result, approximately 2,000 acres on Blue Mountain, which is adjacent to the former smelters, has been totally defoliated. Sue Sturgis, who grew up in nearby Schuylkill County and is now a freelance editor and writer living in North Carolina, told me that Palmerton was their local freak show. As kids they were fascinated to drive through and “see the dead mountain."

Louise Calvin, the president of Palmerton Citizens for a Clean Environment, explained to me later that day that the mountainside was so barren that not even microorganisms could survive. In the early 1990s, the government tried to revitalize the site by dumping sludge and fly ash from helicopters. They imported the sludge and fly ash since Palmerton’s was too contaminated with heavy metals to do the job. I told her that by the look of things the operation was not too successful. She agreed, saying only grass would grow and that the trees, as soon as their roots grew very deep, would wither up and die.

In 1994, Louise's house was completely decontaminated by the EPA. Hers was one of the first out of over 400 homes because she had grandchildren living with her under the age of six. At that time, a study showed that 23% of children in Palmerton had elevated levels of lead in their blood and older men were found to have high levels of cadmium. The EPA removed the top three inches of topsoil in her yard and all of her carpets. The neighborhood was like a war zone, she recalls. Homes were taped off and Coast Guard patrolled at night. This is a company town, after all. To this day her citizen's group does not reveal the names of its members and, when they go door-to-door with their biyearly newsletter, they often are confronted by 100 years of NJ Zinc Company “education.”

The NJ Zinc Company did close its smelters in the early 1980s, but not because of its Superfund designation. Rather, it realized it could make more money with less effort by reprocessing electric arc furnace dust, or steelmaking waste, rather than paying to ore the mines. For years, 100 trucks a day rolled through Palmerton chock full of this hazardous waste, which was left uncovered. In 2003, the company was renamed Horsehead Corporation and continues to this day to produce zinc products from electric arc furnace dust.

On my way out, when I thought I had seen and heard it all, I was told there was more to the Palmerton site; it also includes a separate Operable Unit (OU) called the "cinder bank." This is a pile that runs 2.5 miles long, 200 feet high, and ranges in width from 500 to 1,000 feet. It contains 33 million tons of process waste deposits, which are highly contaminated with heavy metals including zinc, copper, lead and cadmium. The company would love to reclaim the material, being rich in metals, but the EPA has so far forbidden it. Locals believe that somewhere deep in the cinder bank is the grave of Jimmy Hoffa.  

The next two days, Days 33 and 34, we were about 25 miles due west in Schuylkill County. Locals call this particular area a "seven mile hot zone," because it includes four Superfund sites and several fuel leaks. On top of that, the county is home to the highest number of "waste coal" power plants in the US and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has just approved one of these facilities to burn 23 tons of used tires per hour as well.

On Day 33, we visited Eastern Diversified Metals (EDM) in the rural village of Hometown. I was excited to witness the huge mounds of "fluff" that notoriously adorn the site. From 1966 to 1977, EDM was a destination for AT&Ts electrical wire. The company would peel off the polyvinyl chloride insulation, dump it as waste into a pile and salvage the valuable copper. A train would arrive regularly from New Jersey full of phone wires for this purpose. The pile -- reaching 60 feet high, 250 feet wide, and 1,500 feet long -- was left out in the open and not fenced off despite protests from local residents and officials.

Two main contaminants in the fluff pile are lead and PCBs. The site is within a half mile of an elementary school and a short distance from the Little Schuylkill, which provides drinking water for numerous downstream communities. When I visited, I only saw about a quarter of the original fluff pile because the EPA is in the process of bulldozing and capping it — an action that was strongly opposed by local residents, who wanted the material removed from their community. EPA documents declare that the entire pile would be capped in September 2007, so they as of this week only a little bit behind schedule.

Sue Sturgis recalled for me what it was like growing up in Hometown in the 1970s with the EDM fluff pile. In the winter, children would sled down the massive snow-covered mounds of e-waste. She and her brother liked to skate on the frozen leachate, a fascinating psychedelic swirl of metallic-colored chemical ooze. During the summer months, children would ride their mini-bikes on the piles and swim downstream in the Little Schuylkill River, its bottom covered in ankle-deep fluff. She also told me about a lamb that was born on the farm next door to EDM where her former French teacher once lived.  This lamb had an almost perfectly round head, having been born without normal ears and with a stunted, deformed snout. For this reason they called him Snowball.

Joe Murphy, also of Hometown, used to climb the pile with his high school buddies in search of electronic components. The pile was a treasure trove of phones parts, like headsets, cords, patch panels and mainframes. He was able to set up a working intercom system out of EDM parts in his clubhouse.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, there were several large fires on that pile. The noxious black smoke could be seen from 12 miles away. These fires produced dioxin, another one of the pile’s signature contaminants.

Exhausted from two long days in a row, I was hoping for a simple landfill or just another chemical plant on Day 34. Instead I got another whammy, the McAdoo Associates Superfund site. McAdoo (pronounced MAC-a-doo) Associates is located on a hilltop just north of Hometown. The land was once owned by the Reading Anthracite Company and was mined for anthracite coal from 1884 until 1969. In 1975, the property was acquired by McAdoo Associates, which turned the defunct mine into a receptacle for industrial waste. McAdoo operated a vertical waste incinerator and reclaimed metals from waste sludges, reportedly using waste solvents as fuels.

The illegal operation was closed in 1979, at which time 6,790 drums of hazardous waste and several large storage tanks were left behind. Bodies of dead animals and birds were found scattered about them. Superfund oversaw the removal of the surface wastes, but it did not attempt to clean up any of the wastes that ended up in the mineshafts. The question remains, with such a large mine pool of industrial waste on top of a hill, how much has worked its way down and into the lives of the residents? Not only is there a rural neighborhood at the bottom of the hill where people draw water from wells, but the local municipal drinking water reservoir is there, too. And then there were the incinerator emissions to consider.

Airborne emissions are still a worry to this day. Currently, Suez Energy’s Northeastern Power Company—one of the area’s numerous waste coal burning power plants—sits adjacent to the McAdoo Associates Superfund on that hill, like a castle with pollution-spewing stacks in place of ornate spires. Some believe there might be a connection between the site and the high number of cases of a rare blood disorder, polycythemia vera (PV), in the area. Any day now, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) is expected to announce results from a yearlong study into the matter. Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa) was instrumental in moving the ATSDR to do the study in the first place. Specter -- a ranking minority member of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education -- is one of the officials who controls ATSDR's budget.

With so many industrial polluters, old and new, in the vicinity, pinpointing a root cause will be tricky. But Dr. Peter Baddick of Hometown is determined to find answers. He has seen too many cases of cancer, and many of them rare forms. He started noticing irregularities in the 1980s. One example: directly to the south of the McAdoo site are two small villages, Ginther and Still Creek. Of the roughly 100 homes there, 70 have been touched by cancer or some chronic disease.

Dr. Baddick is supposed to present at the ATSDR meeting when the test results are revealed. The meeting, he told me, was scheduled for last month but then was delayed without reason. Yesterday, when he called the case’s lead investigator at ATSDR, Dr. Vincent Seaman, for an update, he learned that the doctor was suddenly relocated to Mozambique. He doesn’t know what will happen next, but says the issue is finally gaining some momentum and even media attention, which is something after so many years.

Superfund365, Brooke Singer

Email Recap Index:

Superfund365 Launches! Around NYC

Bacteria Eating Bugs and Radium Jaw in New Jersey

The 4th Anniversary Report

More, More, More New Jersey

Jimmy Hoffa's Grave, Sledding on E-Waste and a Lamb Named Snowball

A Town Built on "Clean Fill," The Winning Raybestos Brakettes and Their Losing Field and Why Still No Ban on Asbestos?

Senate Subcommittee Superfund Hearing

A Scientific Study Brings out the Skeptics and, Please, Do Overwhelm Us with the Data!

Copper Mining in Vermont -- It's Not All Maple Syrup and Fall Foliage

Syracuse Green or Gross? University Students Take A Closer Look

Supersized: The Longest Superfund Site (the Hudson River) Thanks to One of The Largest Companies in the World (General Electric)