Cattie Galvanizing company

ORCA To City Hall: Help Us Get The Lead Out

This civic is not pleased at all

The Olde Richmond Civic Association has issued a response to last week’s Inquirer series, Toxic City / Tainted Soil.

Concern focuses around two issues:

  • There’s been loads of reporting on the neighborhood’s lead problems.  Literally, every year the lead crisis comes up in a reporting piece.  The Inquirer just joined a long conga line of other outlets who have covered the lead crisis.
  • Nothing’s been done about it. As in; City Hall and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection have elected to ignore the problem completely.

Most of the problem centers around dust control, which local homebuilders are not doing, and securing highly-contaminated sites–none of which are secured.

Have a read:

To Philadelphia Inquirer Reporters and Editorial Staff:

We are writing today in response to the recent piece by Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker titled “Toxic City / Tainted Soil” which is focused almost entirely on our own neighborhood. We represent the Olde Richmond Civic Association which covers an area east to west from the Delaware River to Trenton Avenue and north to south from York Street to East Lehigh Avenue.

Often, but somewhat incorrectly, our neighborhood is referred to as Kensington (which it is) or Fishtown (which it is not) by the news media. Many of the sites featured in “Toxic City” lie within our neighborhood boundaries. As residents of Olde Richmond and active citizens, we cannot help but be moved by the important issues this piece highlighted related to the safety and health of our neighbors. But there are there some missing pieces to this story beyond what was presented in “Toxic City”, some known only to our residents.

“Toxic City” centers around the National Lead factory, known by many by its final name before it closed: Anzon. This facility reprocessed lead for a wide variety of other industries; for lead piping, tools, and lead compounds used to manufacture lead-based white paint–the largest consumer being a the Dutch Boy paint brand which once lined the walls of many of Philadelphia’s rowhomes. By the time the smelting of lead ingots at Anzon ceased the plant had been in continuous operation for over 130 years. That is 130 years of emitting toxic particulates into the air, polluting the surrounding area.

The Anzon lead factory featured in “Toxic City” leaves another potentially more toxic piece of ground than just “Mt. Wawa” as its legacy. Directly behind the St. Anne’s Senior Center is a triangle-shaped lot which is suspected to be so toxic that the investors who own the land stopped pursuit of zoning variances and development once the results of their onsite bore tests were done. This site was exposed during all of Anzon’s operating history. Results of the bore tests were never shared with our civic association and the lot is presently fenced off from public access. There are no signs marking the site as polluted and some residents often exercise their dogs in the grassy space (one of the only green spaces in our neighborhood boundaries) unknowingly endangering themselves, their pets and their families. Additionally, our civic has requested intervention from the Office of Licenses and Inspections to intervene when nearby entrepreneurs have wanted to make use of the land for surface parking. Since there is no asphalt to trap the metal particulates, any use of the site without a cleanup will amplify health hazards.

Though lead has received the lions share the attention and outrage, it is not the only concern in our area. Our soils also contain high levels of nickel, zinc and arsenic on other historic industrial sites including some of the ones highlighted in “Toxic City”. One of the more notable areas with high levels of zinc is a site that received government intervention as a former EPA Superfund site is the present-day location of Greensgrow Farms (the toxic soil is now safely sealed beneath a clay layer).

Nearby at 2501 East Hagert Street is the former Cattie Galvanization plant. Galvanization used hot metal compounds and zinc baths to galvanize or protect sheet metal. This abandoned plant has toxic levels the zinc underneath its floor, a result of the plant’s owner failing to maintain the pit linings. Recently, a proposal by developers for a 20+ unit housing project was brought before our civic association. This project was rejected by our community and the Zoning Board solely on zoning issues but left neighbors with little confidence that the developer knew about abatement procedures to ensure safety for the community.

Construction and development has been occurring throughout the Riverwards at a break neck pace and Olde Richmond is no exception. Since soil that was exposed to lead may have been covered over in the past, surface level testing may not reveal contaminates deep underground that will be disturbed during excavation. As “Toxic City” discussed, it is often when the soil is unearthed during construction that an issue arises. While we welcome renewal and economic development, as developers eye old industrial sites for homes, lofts and business, we will face this issue time and time again. The question is, who can we rely on to help protect us?

The answer may be no one. Lead and heavy metal exposure in Olde Richmond is not just tied to new development. Exposure to these remnants of our industrial past have been documented and studied since the 1980’s. Many who have lived in and grew up in this neighborhood can attest to that fact. What has remained consistent is the response of our City and State government officials: silence. Throughout this entire history of industrial lead exposure the City of Philadelphia has never been a partner to help us. When our neighborhoods sued Anzon, we did it ourselves. When we lobbied Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency, we did it ourselves.

Philadelphia nor the Commonwealth could be bothered to mandate that bore testing results be published and disclosed or that public disclosure of abatement plans be required. More often than not, abatement is not even discussed before or during zoning when an owner of a toxic site is seeking permits. The only community input that happens is when the developer appears for a zoning presentation. When the community finally hears about a contractor unearthing toxic site–we’re left to the rumor mill and upset residents who only have one avenue available to them: a courtroom. While our civic association does not have the funds to pursue endless lead litigation, we support and encourage those who do want to take court action. It’s the only tool we have.

While media attention and articles like “Toxic City” draw attention to and raise discussion of these important and concerning issues, we are tired of all the talk with no action. We applaud and support our neighbors who are convening to discuss a plan to pressure our City officials and hold contractors accountable. Olde Richmond Civic Association is here to help residents throughout the Riverwards educate themselves and find solutions to this issue. Citizen engagement and outrage is necessary to enact change. However, citizens alone cannot change our laws and regulations. We are tired of promises and no follow through. We’re tired of this cycle. We would like government to help us. If only it could be bothered to.

Sincerely,

The Board of the Olde Richmond Civic Association