Philadelphia’s Ghost Factories

USA Today’s recent investigation into ongoing lead contamination at sites of former lead smelters, which they term ‘Ghost Factories,’ has gotten a lot of coverage on environmental blogs lately. So, I decided to look and see what they say about Philadelphia. Not surprisingly, the majority of the smelter locations are in the east coast, with thirty-one located in Philly.

The newspaper’s method was to identify the location of former lead smelters (using Sanborn maps, of course), then went to 21 of those neighborhoods, and pointed an XRF analyzer at the ground, often in residents’ backyards. Most of these yards had elevated lead levels in the soil: 80% of of the neighborhoods had a median soil lead level above 80 ppm, several neighborhoods reached above 2,000 ppm. “Lead levels in the soil samples collected by USA TODAY were generally highest in places like Chicago, Cleveland and Philadelphia — where old inner-city neighborhoods mingled with industrial sites.”

The thrust of the story is the danger posed to children in these neighborhoods, and the lack of action by the EPA to address it.

Now, this bring up a few issue. First of all, it’s not like the EPA can conclusively hold the lead smelters accountable for contamination of an entire neighborhood. There are plenty of sources of lead in urban areas, it wouldn’t be hard to fight a charge. Yet, it shows a big gap in the superfund law. We do a lot of work to clean up brownfields. When a commercial transaction happens, due diligence functions as a useful screen to find out about contaminated sites and remediate them. Well, as long as there’s an interest in redevelopment. But no one conducts a Phase I when they buy an old rowhome in Kensington. What does USA Today think that the EPA is supposed to do here?

There are more than 400 of these ghost factories, only 230 are pinned down in this investigation. “Because most of the old smelters had operated for decades without any regulatory oversight and are now gone, little was known about the size of each factory, where they were located, how much lead they processed and how much pollution they left behind.” A start would be to find these factories. Then what, test everyone’s soil? Mount a massive education campaign? Pave every yard and park? It sounds a lot like the radon situation, a ubiquitous environmental hazard primarily affecting residences, and frustration about the EPA’s lack of action.

And speaking of Ghost Factories, REPSG’s own Jerry Naples received a shout-out on WHYY’s Radio Times recently. As part of the ongoing discussion of Ghost Factories in our city, Marty Moss-Coane featured the topic on her hour long PBS radio show Radio Times.  Her guests included USA Today reporter Allison Young, and Mary Seton Corboy, the founder of Greensgrow Farms in Kensington. Jerry Naples’ shout out came about halfway through the interview, when Mary was talking about the difficulty of developing neighborhood urban farms atop contaminated soils. Mary mentioned that Greensgrow was fortunate to have a member of their board who runs an environmental remediation company. That, my friends, would be REPSG.

You can download and listen to the whole interview on WHYY’s website here and hear how the USA Today’s report has started (or re-started) the conversation of residential pollution in urban environments.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about ghost factories, lead contamination, radon, or any environmental hazards in your community? Feel free to leave a comment below  or contact me at jromanchek@repsg.com.