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REACHAmbler Resources for Education and Action for Community Health in Ambler

REACHAmbler A PROJECT ABOUT THE COMMUNITY, HISTORY, & ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH OF AMBLER, PENNSYLVANIA

An evening of new short plays about the continuing legacy of Ambler’s industrial past

REACH Ambler explores the history, environmental health, and community identity of Ambler, Pennsylvania, through a partnership between the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine and the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF).

Saturday, April 25, at 8 p.m. These exciting, entertaining, and thoughtprovoking new plays are inspired by oral histories, and written by some of Philadelphia’s top playwrights. They will be presented as “staged readings.” To purchase tickets, or for more information, visit act2.org and click on “Education.” A unique collaboration between Act II Playhouse, the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.

From the 1880s to the mid-20th century asbestos production was the cornerstone of Ambler’s local economy. In more recent years Ambler has grappled with its legacy of material production, including a Superfund site and piles of asbestos in various states of remediation, as well as changes in demographics and the local economy. Through methods connected to oral history, public history, and science studies, the REACH Ambler project team has collected diverse viewpoints and information from Ambler residents and institutions. This research informs a variety of interpretive pieces, including one-act plays produced by Act II Playhouse and videos produced by camra, which demonstrate how history can help a community define its present and shape its future. For more information, visit chemheritage.org/AmblerPA. This project is supported by the Office of the Director, National Institutes of Health, under award number R25OD010521-01.


Ambler: Our Town As you enter Ambler via Butler Pike, welcoming signs suggest the quality of life in this community. Most prominent is the large “Welcome to Ambler, Inc. 1888 … A hard-working, friendly community, founded on harmony and commitment.” Nearby signs remind parents to register their children for softball and baseball at the Ambler Savings Bank and to attend a summer camp fair at Temple Sinai. These signs indicate that Ambler is a lively community, with social activities and community institutions that bring neighbors together. On Butler Avenue in downtown Ambler you might pass a local resident who calls Butler Avenue “Main Street,” even though another road formally named Main Street intersects Butler. Newcomers looking for the central shopping area may be surprised to find it on Butler and not on Main. As in many communities, newcomers eventually learn the local nicknames and the location of the best spots, thus becoming old-timers. But as neighborhoods shift, grow, and shrink because of economic influences, racial and environmental issues, and transportation and regional trends, the population of small American towns like Ambler ebb and flow. Ambler has experienced many changes; former and current residents describe the town at its most bustling and most deserted. Butler Avenue has been a main thoroughfare since the 19th century but saw a boom in the 1950s and has recently seen another resurgence. Salvatore Boccuti, a second-generation Ambler resident, speaks about the boom times and the lean times: We used to have a cop directing traffic on Friday nights, it was so busy. And people would come in to shop, and we had a men’s store, we had a women’s store, we had a jewelry store. You could buy ties and shoes and dresses, and everything. The malls came in, and that went away. And Ambler fell on some pretty hard times. I mean, we weren’t destitute, but it was nothing like it was before, you know. And now it’s starting to come back. I think we could still use a few stores to sell ties and shoes and dresses, but we’re on the way.

Sharon Cooke Vargas grew up in West Ambler and remembers the variety of needs fulfilled at shops on Butler Avenue: “They had everything there. You had the Acme grocery store. You had a dress shop for upscale dressing. You had the Woolworth’s. You had a shoe store. You had a furniture store. You had a drugstore. You had a taxi cab. You had schools.”

Cover: Signs on Butler Pike, 2013. Photo by Matthew Tarditi. Far left: Butler Avenue and Main Streets, 2014. Photo by Jabari Zuberi. Above: Welcome to Ambler sign and storefronts, 2014. Photos by Matthew Tarditi.


The Ambler American Legion also serves as a valuable gathering place in West Ambler; Ruth E. Weeks, who grew up in West Ambler and now lives in Philadelphia, refers to the Legion as “home” and discusses the leadership roles her aunt and mother played in the women’s auxiliary, and the crucial role the Legion plays in the African American community. Well, the Legion, they have a little bar downstairs. You can go out to dinner, but you’re always going to end up at the Legion. It’s a lot of fun. And the Legion, we got so used to it because our parents were so involved in it. Not so much Daddy, but Mommy was. She was the president of the Women’s Auxiliary. One of my aunts was the president of the Women’s Auxiliary. My uncle was in the male part of it. So it was just the culture that we grew up with. When I got married the second time, I didn’t think about going anyplace else to have my reception. It was the Legion. It was like, that’s where I’m going to have it. Even though we could have been squeezed in there like sardines, I didn’t think about a bigger hall because it’s the Legion. It’s home to me.

The American Legion and the St. Francis Society exemplify the numerous Ambler institutions that have been and are still so integral to community life—spaces that provide a second home for Ambler residents, their friends, and their families.

Although Butler Avenue remains the core of Ambler’s commercial and civic life, neighbors gather in civic and religious spaces throughout Ambler’s residential areas to celebrate, organize, and worship in groups that reflect the diversity of the community. Active groups include the St. Francis Society and American Legion, along with many congregations, such as Zion Baptist, St. Anthony’s, and St. Joseph’s. Jack DelConte, who grew up in Ambler and is now the manager of 34 East Tavern on Butler Avenue, speaks about the St. Francis Society, home of the Sons of Italy, an Italian American social group, in South Ambler. Everybody knew everybody. Everybody went to the same schools. Everybody [was] mostly Italian. On a Sunday morning, you could smell the sauce from three blocks away, you know. And it was a great, great neighborhood, a lot of fun. Baseball teams. There was a Sons of Italy Club right there. We had feasts, like St. Francis Day was a big day.

Left: St. Francis Day parade, 2014. Photo by Jabari Zuberi. Above: St. Joseph’s Church school, 2014. Photo by Matthew Tarditi. Top center: St. Francis Day Festival Parade, 1930s. Newton Howard Photograph Collection, Historical Society of Montgomery County. Above right: Sons of Italy lodge, 2014. Photo by Matthew Tarditi. Far right: Zion Baptist Church, exterior, 2014. Photo by Jabari Zuberi.

Salvatore Boccuti also recalls both the food and the celebration: The St. Francis Society has a parade all through Ambler, and they have pasta and ceci [garbanzo] beans and stuff like that as a celebration. Well, in those days, we used to gather in that field, in that baseball field, and at night, they had fireworks, and the fireworks were on top of the dump, on top of the asbestos pile [remains of asbestos waste from the Keasbey and Mattison plant].


Ambler: Work and White Mountains Everything about Ambler was built on asbestos. You know, Dr. [Richard] Mattison lived here, owned four hundred houses, or built four hundred houses, had that big castle over there on Bethlehem Pike. Everything was based on [asbestos]. And when he and his partner came here originally in the late 1880s, they came for pharmaceuticals because of the limestone deposit. They were making milk of magnesia. And then they found out the insulated qualities, when they mixed this and this, and then, poof, they took off when they got involved with asbestos, and shingles, and lining curtains for stages, and all that stuff. We had the world’s largest manufacturer of asbestos products in our town.

—From Bernadette Dougherty, author of a history of Ambler in Montgomery County: The Second Hundred Years and who is active in regional civic and historical institutions From the 1880s to 1981 Ambler’s economy and identity were based primarily on one industry, similar to many industrial towns that became notable leaders in steel, coal, or textile production. Ambler was even nicknamed Shingleton for its production of asbestos shingles. Ambler became a “factory town” as Keasbey and Mattison (K&M) employed residents, built and rented homes, created utility companies, and wielded influence over local banks. K&M’s asbestos business was bought by Turner Newall in 1933, and later by Nicolet and CertainTeed, which ceased operations in 1981.

Left: Fire insurance map of Keasbey and Mattison plant and surrounding area, 1922. Sanborn Map Company. Pennsylvania State University. Above: Richard Mattison with life-sized cast of deer outside his home, Lindenwold, ca. 1920s. Photo by John McIlroy. Historical Society of Montgomery County, Newton Howard Photograph Collection. Above right: Keasbey and Mattison Company, attached row house type, 100–114 South Chestnut Street, Ambler, ca. 1933. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, HABS PA,46-AMB,10R-1.

While asbestos products were widely hailed and used as fire retardants and insulators, workers in asbestos production were exposed to a variety of hazards from breathing airborne asbestos fibers, which affect the lungs and lead to such diseases as mesothelioma. Tim Hughes, a resident of Ambler since 1994, speaks here about the levels of asbestos exposure his brother experienced while manufacturing pipes at Nicolet: I actually had a brother, my brother Ed, [who had a job with Nicolet]. They [made] tiles and [large] round pipes that were used in construction, I suppose, for water mains or sewer lines. Ed’s job was to wear a heavy set of gloves and spin the pipes and break off the [imperfections] of not perfectly formed concrete on the end of the pipe. Just sort of break it up so it’s nice and smooth. He only did it for about a week because he hated the job, but that’s what he did. If you think about that, how many hundreds or thousands of workers had those kinds of jobs, where they’re breaking this stuff up [and making it airborne and all] right in front of their faces?”

As awareness about the health effects of such working conditions increased, workers filed lawsuits. By 1987, 61,000 suits had been filed against Nicolet Industries. Those who lived near the plant also faced airborne exposure to asbestos, as did family members of workers, who had contact with a worker’s clothing. Carol DiPietro, a member of the Ambler Borough Planning Commission whose grandparents came to the area in the early 20th century to work at K&M, describes her mother dusting asbestos off of her suit after visiting the factory floor and returning to the K&M office where she worked as a secretary: She said that you could walk into that factory, and you saw all of the asbestos fibers floating in the air. And she said when she came back into her office, she used to have to brush her suit off. But from her description of that at the time, I don’t believe that they thought that that was a health hazard.

DiPietro also recounts taking pieces of asbestos to her kindergarten class for show and tell: When she [Carol’s mother] stopped working, there was a box. This is unbelievable. It was a box this big. It was orange, and all the lettering on it was black, “Keasbey & Mattison, Keasbey & Mattison.” You opened it up, and it was asbestos in there. It was the raw asbestos. It was pieces that they made, like a piece of fabric. I took that for show and tell in kindergarten.


K&M encouraged schools to teach about asbestos as a material by distributing a school exhibit of asbestos products, such as a small box full of fabric, twine, and other asbestos products. Such marketing highlighted the properties of asbestos and further affiliated Ambler with asbestos production. The 1923 cover of American Builder proclaimed, “Ambler asbestos shingles last forever. Nothing to rot, rust, burn or require painting. Gets stronger with age.”

Above: American Builder, April 1923. Wissahickon Valley Historical Society. Top right: White Mountains and K&M factory, 1937. Photo by Victor Dallin. Hagley Library. Right: Advertisement, date unknown. Wissahickon Valley Historical Society. Far right: Looking through fence at Ambler Asbestos Piles site, 2013. Photo by Jabari Zuberi.

While shingles from Ambler protected the roofs of many American homes from fire, asbestos manufacturers in Ambler left piles of white waste that contained asbestos and other materials. From its earliest days K&M dumped debris like magnesium carbonate, calcium carbonate, and asbestos-containing cement behind the factory. Aerial photos from 1937 show these piles growing into the “White Mountains” of Ambler. After the factories closed, the waste remained. Victor Romano, an Ambler native who spent most of his childhood there, reflects on sledding down these mountains: And then about three football fields long was the mountain. That was the mountain of waste asbestos. And they would have trucks that would, of course, go around, and as they dumped it, it was lower here, and it got higher and higher and higher. And I would guess it was about 50, 60, 70 feet high. And then on the ground floor, there was just a little creek running there and they had two sections. When they cut the shingles to size, they had some scraps, this and that, [that] would be on the one section. But the other section had sawdust asbestos, and it would be powdery, and we as kids, when it would rain, it would get slick as ice, and we would get cardboard boxes, and we’d go 60, 70 feet up, and slide down to the creek down below.

Other neighbors who lived near the White Mountains recall dust landing like snow on summer windowsills. Gioia Smith, a lifelong Ambler resident who is active in various local community groups, reminisces: All that white, in the summertime, when they would open the windows up, we could never figure out why my aunt’s windowsills were all white. And later on we found out that that was asbestos.

In the 1980s Smith played a significant role in efforts to clean up the local playground adjacent to the Ambler Asbestos Piles site. Asbestos waste was also located directly behind workers’ houses on “Back Street,” formally named West Chestnut Street. Flo Wise, who grew up in West Ambler and was a community activist for many years, recollects: And so they lived on what they called the Back Street. It was crowded, and it was a whole slew of houses on that Back Street where the people lived. We all just played together. I mean, you could come out [of] their house and go right up on the bank where the asbestos was.

Though the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the piles of waste safe in 1977, in 1983 the agency reconsidered its position and added the Ambler Asbestos Piles site to the Superfund list. During the 1980s citizens pressed for further action on these issues. In a 1986 Inquirer article Gioia Smith was quoted as a speaker at a public meeting: “When I can’t drive down Locust Street to visit my family because there’s a slide of red mud that might be contaminated with asbestos, that’s the problem you should be addressing. Take care of it now.” The EPA cleanup finished in 1993; today the waste is covered with a thick layer of cement, soil, and vegetation.


Ambler: Questions and Debates—Removal, Reuse, and Safe Places

Developing and maintaining free and safe public space that meets the needs of people and wildlife is a difficult process propelled by dialogue and debate among individuals, citizen groups, government agencies, and business interests. In Ambler, sites containing asbestos include or are adjacent to public parks and streams. The BoRit Superfund site, next to Wissahickon Creek, includes a waste pile, Whitpain Park, and a contaminated reservoir. Members of the Ambler community remember the reservoir as a swimming hole, a prime fishing spot, a public dump, and an industrial water supply. The reservoir is now owned by a local environmental organization, the Wissahickon Watershed Association, which hopes to rehabilitate the site once EPA cleanup is complete. Resident Victor Romano recalls swimming and fishing at the reservoir while water was being pumped into the factory to make shingles. They needed a lot of water to make the shingles, and they got that from the Wissahickon Creek. They built a dam on the creek, and then they had a pumping station there, and they pumped the water. It was about 50, 60 feet high from the Wissahickon Creek to where the reservoir was, okay? And then they would pump the water from the Wissahickon Creek up to the reservoir, and then the shingle plant would draw the water from the reservoir, and make the shingles. And that’s how it was. And we swam in it. It was clear water. We fished in it.

Safe places to play and spend leisure time are essential to community life, but in Ambler a playground was created atop an asbestos site and later forced to close. In the 1960s Whitpain Township acquired land formerly belonging to Keasbey and Mattison and turned it into a park that served West Ambler for two decades. Ruth E. Weeks discusses her good memories about the place she perceived as safe: “It was the safest place to be. We [would say], ‘Mama, I’m going to the playground.’ It was fine. I don’t even think we had to tell her. I think they just knew that’s where we were.” Government officials closed Whitpain Park in the mid-1980s when they found it contaminated with asbestos waste. Despite assurances from Whitpain Township and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection that the park would be cleaned, it has never reopened and is now part of the BoRit Superfund site.

Far left: Asbestos site and Wissahickon Waterfowl Preserve signage, 2013. Photo by Matthew Tarditi. Top left: White Mountains with mother and child, ca.1960s. Courtesy of Salvatore Boccuti. Top right: BoRit reservoir, 2014. Photo by Matthew Tarditi. Center: Ruth E. Weeks gives a tour, 2013. Photo by Matthew Tarditi.


Commercial interests have pushed for a different reuse of the BoRit site. In 2004 developer David F. Kane of Kane Core, along with his business partner Mark Marino, bought a six-acre, asbestoscontaining waste pile in West Ambler and proposed erecting a 17-story condominium building on it. Citizens swiftly objected and formed Citizens for a Better Ambler (CBA), an advocacy group to stop the development. Though members of the Borough Council initially supported the plan, public outcry convinced them to vote against the proposal. While developers were presenting architectural drawings to township officials, members of CBA deployed a variety of grassroots tactics. The group distributed fliers and floated a large balloon to the height of the proposed building to document the visual impact the structure would have. Fighting the high-rise also focused attention on the asbestos present on the site. Tim Hughes was closely involved in the founding of CBA and the efforts to stop the Kane Core high-rise from being built. He discusses his response to the high-rise project: I began to look into it, to see really what was being proposed. And it startled me. I’d have to say the very first response was, “I’m going to lose the view in the back of my home.” That’s exactly what I was most concerned about [initially]. Then I thought about all the other neighbors who have moved here for specific reasons. They’ve moved here not to live next to a high-rise, or to have a potential high-rise in their future, not that I have any particular issue with high-rises, but I think there’s appropriate places to put them, and in the middle of this area, it [seemed inconsistent]. So [my first negative response had nothing to do with the asbestos factor]. I remember it was towards the end of 2004, in the fall, and I had a business trip to go on the next day, but I felt like I had to do something, because I was going to be gone for about 10 days. So that afternoon, I created a flier that showed the high-rise looming over the neighborhood in two different perspectives, and it was just really kind of Photoshopped in, but it was as close to scale as I thought I could make it.

What “got going” was further action and dialogue concerning the BoRit site and the creation of the Community Advisory Group (CAG), a group of citizens who communicate with the EPA and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to recommend improvements to the site. Views differ about what would improve the site. As Salvatore Boccuti, CAG member and Ambler resident says, “The agencies don’t always agree with us, but we make our recommendations.”

[While] I drove the car [with my wife, Aurora] in the passenger seat, we put about a hundred of the fliers in mailboxes the night before I went away, and left my phone number, and the next day, while I was flying, my phone just blew up. People wanted to know more about [the high-rise proposal]. And I think the image of the high-rise, rather than just saying there’s a high-rise going up, really got people concerned and worried. So the grassroots effort began that night [and CBA was formed]. And shortly after my return, we began to meet, and we had literally hundreds of meetings over a long, long period of time. I was, and still am, very impressed with the expertise of the members and what they were all capable of doing. It was just the perfect blend of skills, personalities, and knowledge. And [if we needed information immediately, we had members that would work through the night to get it]. It started out with 60 or 70 or 80 people, but at the end of a [relatively] short period of time, it really boiled down to the people that really cared. We began with concerns about the high-rise, but it became obvious to us all very quickly that this was about so much more. The developers’ plan for the high-rise was the catalyst that got it going.

Some community members, such as Sharon McCormick, are highly skeptical of suggestions for other kinds of reuse of the site and of the EPA steps currently under way; McCormick has often pushed for total removal of asbestos from the site. A lifelong resident of the Philadelphia area, McCormick moved to Ambler in the 1990s. In 2004 she founded Citizens for a Better Ambler, first to advocate against the building of the Kane Core high-rise and then to get what is now the BoRit Superfund site on the National Priorities List. She is now a member of the Ambler Borough Council. Speaking of reuse options at the BoRit site, McCormick says, Now, I’m not against reuse. But I want it cleaned up. I’m against putting people on top of this dump, for real, unless they were going to encase it in concrete and tell us that we have this liner and this liner and this liner and it’ll absolutely not get into the creek and blah-blah-blah and this and that—fine. But they’re not. They’re talking about three feet of dirt and a geotextile covering that a groundhog can dig into in three minutes.

Gordon Chase has been a resident of Ambler for almost a decade and is an active member of the BoRit CAG. He is aware of the health risks and the cost of attempting to move large amounts of asbestos. I think there are extreme costs to removing it all, and a very long period of time. The physical act of moving 300,000 cubic yards will take years. If you happen to be living down in West Ambler by that site, the thought of having dump trucks rolling past your house every day for the next four or five years [is unpleasant]. Being on the freeway, if you have one truck have an accident, topple over, and all this asbestos went up, you know, these are the risks. Plus, as I said, all the pollution that all these movements would make, plus the possible dangers to workers who are having to dig all this material up, plus the residents. Center: EPA sign, 2013. Photo by Matthew Tarditi. Top left: Aerial view of BoRit Site with reservoir drainage in progress, 2014. © 2015 Salvatore A. Boccuti, www.salboccuti.com/. Left: EPA restoration work, 2013. Photo by Jabari Zuberi. Above right: Wissahickon Creek with EPA reinforcements to riverbanks, 2013. Photo by Matthew Tarditi.

Flo Wise advocates strongly for safely securing the asbestos in place and redeveloping the land in ways that would replace Whitpain Park, which was closed because of asbestos contamination. With the CAG, I could understand what they represented, because they wanted to make sure of safety. That was their main thing, is safety. And where I went astray from Sharon, Sharon said, “Move it all.” You can’t move it all. What I was saying to Sharon— because I’m protecting West Ambler—if you say move it all, that means my community goes. You can’t move it all because you have a reservoir full of it. Where I split with Sharon is, I want them to do like they did before. They covered it up. They put dirt on it or something. Stuff is more modern now that they can do. I’d rather for them to do that and let us have our park back. I even compromised to the point when they said, “We can do all this, but you won’t be able to run and play on the park like you used to years ago.” So I said, “All right then. Put benches up there. Make a walking track for us. We walk. Black people walk.” Because they want to walk from the Montgomery Community College. My buddy told me this, they want to go up from Montgomery Community College, through West Ambler, down to Philly. So I said, “That’s fine. Give us some benches. Leave our park there so we can walk up and have somewhere to sit outside of our porches and on the street. Give us some benches, and have a walking path for us, too. We have to walk, too.” You know? But they don’t hear that.

How to make the voices of different community groups heard and how to build allies to influence change are questions that often arise over contested spaces, such as the BoRit site. What seems safe for some may be inadequate for others. Visions of the future are affected by what has been gained and lost in the past. Ruth E. Weeks speaks about these legacies and her hopes for the future: Why keep talking about the asbestos? It’s in the past, but it affects what’s going on now. But the township, to me, still won’t acknowledge that. Because to me, if you took the park away because of the asbestos, then give the community something else in place of, in a safer place, like where my cousins used to live. It’s on the opposite side of where the asbestos dump was. Why not put something there? There’s too many holes in the community.

What and whose priorities will be addressed remains a question as planning and work on the BoRit site continues. Perhaps Anne McDonough’s thoughts about considering many needs and perspectives can guide future decisions. McDonough is a high-school science teacher for the Wissahickon School District in Ambler. “I feel like this is a small enough community that you can’t say it’s happening to them, because we’re small. It will impact our entire community. It’s not somebody else’s problem. It’s all of our problems.” As of 2013 Whitpain Township had presented the West Ambler Revitalization and Action Plan, which lays out strategies to address stormwater management, reutilization of the BoRit site, and improvement of infrastructure. At present the EPA is completing the last phases of the project.


Ambler: Success Stories of Reuse

Jean Thompson Park Locust Street playground, adjacent to a former Keasbey and Mattison dump site in South Ambler, was the second public park closed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for asbestos-related issues. In 1983 the EPA found traces of asbestos on playground equipment; the playground was closed and the equipment removed. Jean Thompson, whose home on Locust Street looked out over the site, fought to ensure that when the EPA completed cleanup, a safe park would reopen. “I’m not concerned about myself. I’m concerned about my grandchildren. Why did [the government] wait all those years to tell us the asbestos piles could be dangerous?” When the park reopened in 1990, it was named in her honor. Thompson was Ambler Citizen of the Year in that year; an Inquirer article written about her receipt of that award was titled “Her Persuasive Voice Is Heard and Honored.” Thompson’s niece, Gioia Smith, discusses her aunt’s activism in closing and reopening the park: It was shut down because of the asbestos and stuff. Back then, and I think they were talking about it more, and she fought for them to close it down. And then after they closed it down, they started working on it, and she was a real advocate. I mean, if you look up Billie Jean Thompson, she was an advocate on all that. And then after she was fussing about the conditions on the playgrounds and all, so the borough, they shut it down. [She] never missed a borough meeting. And she was really an advocate for getting her community safe.

Ambler Boiler House

Conclusion

Real-estate developer John Zaharchuk decided to renovate the Ambler Boiler House after he saw the then vacant building, which had generated steam-powered electricity for asbestos production, in the movie Spellbound. The film depicted the sort of children you would want to celebrate; one of the spelling-bee contestants in the film was the daughter of the owner of the bar next to Deck’s Hardware in Ambler. To show her hometown the filmmaker flashed an image on the screen of the former boiler house.

Jean Thompson Park and the Ambler Boiler House project offer success stories about the role of citizens, business, and government in making positive changes in a community that was once a busy “factory town.” Industrial production has left a large environmental and cultural footprint that continues to affect towns such as Ambler. Pristine landscapes are hard to find in a country that has been industrialized and is full of towns and cities that have been left polluted by the waste from manufacturing.

Zaharchuk saw an opportunity to restore this property, but doing so would require money, a thorough remediation process, and tenants who would value a renovated building. In 2002 Summit Realty of New Castle, Delaware, began amassing what eventually totaled $14.7 million in private funding and government loans to develop the Ambler Boiler House, vacant since the 1980s, into energy-efficient office space. The “green,” LEED-certified offices opened in December 2012.

By harnessing the political will, skill, and resources to remediate contaminated sites, options exist to redevelop communities into places that are healthy, safe, and full of opportunities to live, work, and enjoy life. While that remediation occurs, children seek places to play, families grow and change, and customers drink coffee and eat lunch along main streets such as Butler Avenue in Ambler.

Describing the process of asbestos removal that was also monitored by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and EPA, Zaharchuk says, We also are in the development business, so we deal a lot with environmental contamination, and in truth, asbestos is one of the easiest contaminants to actually deal with. It’s identifiable, and it can be capped on site. You just can’t put it in the air. It just can’t become airborne. So as long as you follow some fairly simple rules of remediation, it’s actually not a bad contaminant to deal with. It doesn’t lead to groundwater problems. Once it’s capped, it’s inert.

However, the Boiler House renovation did require additional steps to remove asbestos from bricks. Zaharchuk describes the process: So what we had to do, we had to wash, hand wash, all of those bricks, to get all the asbestos fibers off of them. We created a clean product that we could actually use to fill elsewhere on the site, and then we harvested all the asbestos that was collected, very labor intensive, very costly. That was probably the most costly component of the environmental remediation.

These efforts proved valuable as Zaharchuk and other tenants now feel satisfied and safe working in the building. And clearly, I mean, I moved my company into a building that was a former asbestos manufacturer. I wouldn’t let my people inside of a building I thought was dangerous, or proximate to something that was dangerous.

Some tenants were quite attracted to the building because it is a successful example of reuse. Speaking of satisfied tenants, Zaharchuk adds: The other reaction was, “Wow, this is exactly what I’m looking for. This is the image I want for my company. I want to be in a green building. What do I have to do to get here?” And the good news is the building is filled with those types of people.

Zaharchuk is now working on another project in Ambler that will require remediation of magnesium that must be capped. When completed, The Crossings will be a residential project in which tenants can live and work.

Far left: Boiler House before renovation, 2010. Photographer unknown. Top left: Basketball court at Ambler Piles site after renovation, 2013. Photo by Jabari Zuberi. Left: Inside Boiler House before renovation, 2010. Photographer unknown. Top center: Ambler Boiler House after renovation, 2013. Photo by Matthew Tarditi. Above: Ambler Manor, recent construction, 2014. Photo by Matthew Tarditi.

REACH Ambler  

A project about the community, history, and environmental health of Ambler, Pennsylvania

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