The chunks of crumbled concrete looked suspiciously fuzzy.
That’s what Linda Reinstein thought on one June day last year as she toured the Superfund sites and abandoned asbestos factories in this small Pennsylvania borough with her friend and fellow mesothelioma widow Marilyn Amento. Based on her 12 years’ experience with asbestos, Reinstein thought the pieces of crumbled concrete looked “just off enough” to be sent to a lab for testing.
Reinstein’s instincts were correct. A laboratory analysis revealed that the sample of crumbled concrete, located in an area that was accessible to the public, contained 60% chrysotile asbestos.
The discovery wasn’t totally surprising, considering Ambler’s history with asbestos, which goes back more than a century. But Reinstein, the co-founder and president of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), and residents of this borough said it emphasized the need for further investigation by government authorities into the possible continuing health and environmental hazards.
“If I can walk around the fence of a ‘cleaned up’ site and find a four-by-three piece of asbestos-laden concrete, that means there is likely more asbestos-contaminated debris,” Reinstein told the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance.
She added, “I’m just a mesothelioma widow – if I could find contaminated debris, so can others.”
Ambler and Asbestos
Ambler, located about 16 miles north of Philadelphia, is one of several American towns that are struggling with the toxic legacy of the asbestos industry. Though not as well known to the general public as Libby, Montana, where generations of residents have died or become sick from asbestos-related disease traced to a mine operated by W.R. Grace, Ambler was long known in the industry as the “asbestos-manufacturing capital of the world.”
In 1896, a young scientist named Richard Mattison built the nation’s first asbestos textile plant in Ambler, according to a historical report by the Chemical Heritage Foundation titled “Living in the Town Asbestos Built.” The factory produced insulation for power-generating boiler houses and steam locomotives, fireproof curtains for homes, and brake linings for automobiles, among other products.
Indeed, Ambler’s geography and other elements made it the perfect location for asbestos factories, with its steady supply of spring water and a railroad that could deliver asbestos from mines in Quebec. Mattison soon became known as the “Asbestos King.”
The asbestos industry in Ambler provided jobs and an element of prosperity for the town, but it also left disease, sickness, and death that have continued to this day. Workers in the asbestos factories weren’t the only ones affected. So were their mothers and daughters who washed the workers’ clothes, the children who played near the factories, and others who simply lived in the town.
The asbestos factories produced 1.5 million cubic yards of asbestos-contaminated waste that were known locally as the “White Mountains of Ambler.” One rose to nearly 100 feet. Children rode flattened cardboard boxes down the white mountains, according to a 2014 story in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Montgomery County, Pa., where Ambler is located, has one of the highest rates of death from asbestos-related diseases in the nation, according to a 2016 report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Action Fund. Government records show Montgomery County ranks 11th out of 726 counties in the nation with the most mesothelioma and asbestosis deaths from 2000-2014.
“The legacy of asbestos in the Philadelphia region is one of the worst in the country, with annual mortality rates from asbestos-triggered diseases far higher than the national average,” the EWG report states. It adds that “one of the most infamous examples of industrial asbestos production occurred in the town of Ambler.”
“Ambler is a unique but very sad tragedy,” agreed Reinstein. “Because of the extensive asbestos manufacturing, processing and distribution for 60 years, Ambler has earned the dubious distinction of being the asbestos capital of the world.” She added, “This is a huge problem.”
In Ambler, Marilyn Amento is emblematic of the human cost of the problem. Her husband, Joe, died of mesothelioma in 2003 at age 53, leaving his wife and two young children. “My husband loved the town – he loved Ambler,” Marilyn Amento, now 61, recalled in an interview.
Ironically, living in Ambler may have helped to kill him. The only known cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos. Joe Amento sold brass screws for a living, and he never worked in the asbestos factories. But he lived in Ambler his entire life, and he rode his bike near the mounds of asbestos waste. Also, his father worked in the asbestos factories and may have unwittingly brought home asbestos dust on his work clothes. Joe Amento’s father died of asbestosis and his mother of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Joe Amento was the type of guy who could eat a half-package of Oreos and not gain weight, his wife recalled, but after he got sick and was diagnosed with mesothelioma, he could hardly eat at all. “Every meal was like a death sentence,” his wife said.
Cleaning Up Ambler
The responsibility for dealing with the ongoing health and environmental concerns rests primarily with the U.S. Environmental Agency (EPA). EPA’s cleanup efforts here began 30 years ago, when it added the Ambler Asbestos Superfund Site to its National Priorities List of most hazardous waste sites, making it eligible for cleanup using federal Superfund program funding.
The Ambler Asbestos Piles Superfund Site, which is about 25 acres in size and located near a residential and commercial area, was added to the Environmental Protection Agency’s national priority list in 1986, and cleanup of the site was completed in 1993. It was removed from the priorities list in 1996. The piece of asbestos-contaminated concrete that Reinstein found in June 2015 was located near this site.
A second site, the BoRit Asbestos Superfund Site, was added to EPA’s national priorities list in 2009, and remains on the list. This site was used from the early 1900s to the late 1960s to dispose of asbestos-containing material that came from a nearby manufacturing plant. It includes an asbestos waste pile, a reservoir and a closed park.
Residents and advocates question whether EPA’s response has been adequate.
“The cleanup at the BoRit Asbestos Superfund site is not a good nor adequate long-term remedy…plain and simple,” said Sharon McCormick, an Ambler borough council member. “I believe wholeheartedly that the EPA does not know how to remediate asbestos disposal sites.”
Diane Morgan, who has been fighting to clean up Ambler for years, suggested that Ambler hasn’t received as much help as other asbestos sites, such as Libby, Montana. “There are many asbestos problems that are bigger than Libby that are not getting any attention,” she said.
“Ambler has the most asbestos-related deaths than all of the others,” she continued. “The U.S. EPA would like us all to believe their propaganda, but in reality none of these sites are cleaned up and safe for the long term. Ambler and Libby are very similar in their contamination problem, but Ambler is older and we have faced this problem much sooner than Libby. We were the first so-called asbestos clean-up in U.S. EPA’s history, and we still have a huge problem. We have still not received a full investigation of the contamination here.”
EPA declined to be interviewed for this article. “Thanks for all your interest in all the good work EPA is doing to Ambler, Pa.,” a spokesperson told Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance in an email. “Unfortunately, given the current commitments of the experts who know the most about these sites, we can’t arrange an interview right now.”
The ADAO’s Reinstein said that Ambler has gotten the same government help as Libby, and suggested that there is a need for EPA to revisit their work in Ambler and take action to protect public health and the environment.
“Libby had a strong congressional champion in Sen. Max Baucus, but over the past decades Ambler hasn’t and still doesn’t have a congressional champion,” she said. Baucus, a Democrat, was a U.S. Senator from Montana from 1978 to 2013, and he is currently U.S. Ambassador to China.
In a letter to four U.S. Senators, Reinstein and Heather White, executive director of the Environmental Working Group Action Fund, urged Congress to initiative a Government Accountability Office investigation of Ambler’s public health and environmental situation, similar to an assessment that was done in Libby. GAO is the investigative arm of Congress.
“Although 20 years have passed since the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the Ambler Asbestos Piles and the BoRit Asbestos Superfund site for final cleanup, asbestos exposure remains a public health concern for Ambler residents,” the September 2015 letter stated.
“We write to ask you to request an investigation by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) into the past and present impacts of asbestos exposure near the Ambler Asbestos Piles and BoRit Asbestos Superfund site. Residents deserve to know whether asbestos contamination in the air, water and soil continues to impact Ambler residents’ health and the environment,” the letter said.
Reinstein said she hasn’t received a formal response to the request for a GAO investigation. Thirteen years after her husband’s death, Marilyn Amento is also critical of the government clean-up of Ambler.
“I don’t think they’ve done enough,” she said. “I just feel we need somebody to stand up and go to bat for Ambler.”