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Philadelphia ranks near the top of lists detailing the most toxic and hazardous places in America. But what you don’t see on those lists is how close the sites are to where city residents live, work and play.
Take Mike Zatyko and Tom Summers. They’re neighbors in Port Richmond row homes, and they say they breathe air that feels thicker and smells worse than car exhaust.
A block or two away from their homes, Philadelphia Gas Works has a plant on Castor Avenue. Up the road on Richmond Avenue, the vacant, reeking site of a former oil plant that could still be contaminated is nestled among dozens of other homes. Finally, there’s the Franklin Slag Pile a little farther past the Gas Works. It rises from the ground like a massive wart, the lead that used to seep from it covered by a plastic seal.
Within a half-mile of all three of these hazards, there’s also the Delaware River bike trail, a Target and several other retail stores, a water treatment plant and the likely ultra-classy Penthouse strip club ($2 valet!), which is so close to the Franklin Slag Pile that a sign for the club stands in front of the pile.
A month ago, RealtyTrac ranked United States counties with the most man-made hazards. Philadelphia County was No. 2 behind only St. Louis County with over six of them per square mile. The ranking comes three years after Forbes ranked Philadelphia the No. 1 most-toxic city in the nation. It’s a major buzzkill for a city that’s still battling its “Filthadelphia” reputation — officials have been touting gains in sustainability and greenness under Mayor Michael Nutter, but only so much can be done to reverse years of neglect.
Why so many rankings? Consistently poor air and water quality, and plenty of hazards like the slag pile — it’s a Superfund site, considered the worst kind of site for toxic waste (Philadelphia has five of them, two that have been cleaned and redeveloped). Others are classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as brownfields and Toxic Release Inventory pollutants. Brownfields are former industrial sites that might be contaminated. The TRI pollutants consist of any current industry that produces or uses certain chemicals or contaminants to a high-enough level that they must publicly report it.
Given that Philadelphia has about six hazards per square mile, according to the RealtyTrac data, you’ll seem them listed everywhere by the EPA. Few of these hazards emit dangerous levels of contaminants into the air, water or soil. Most pose no harm and are listed by the EPA because they harbor or produce chemicals and contaminants that could be released during an accident.
The TRI pollutant list includes, for instance, places like the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Drexel College of Medicine, as well as more obvious ones like that Philadelphia Gas Works site in Port Richmond.
Brownfields can sometimes be redeveloped after they’re examined and cleaned. Some of them are obvious and hideous like the jumbled mix of overgrown grass and weeds and concrete where teenagers sneak in to drink at the brownfield on Richmond Avenue. Others have been redeveloped and are unnoticeable: A brownfield in Northern Liberties is now the Northern Liberties Community Center and a small park.
Of course, these hazardous and most toxic lists encapsulate only the man-made environmental problems that we already know. Philadelphia is one of the oldest cities in America. Marilyn Howarth, director of community outreach and engagement core for the Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology at UPenn, says the region’s industrial past will continue to be a problem for the city. All of the redevelopments and sustainable projects Philadelphia plans need to consider that lead, arsenic or other contaminants could lurk, especially near rivers or old train tracks.
“Until 1970 nobody really paid attention to the leftovers from an industry,” Howarth says. “If you had a tannery or chemical company or a printing shop there would be some spilled items and some leftover supplies, and probably inadequate disposal with people just dumping in the backyard. Because we’re such an old city we have had a couple centuries of doing this.”
The people tasked with cleaning up the hazards are often a combination of the city’s Planning Commission and the federally-funded EPA. The EPA has a regional office in Philly and does major work with hazards, like capping the Franklin Slag Pile, as well as low-key community events, like a free soil-testing this Saturday in Kensington, where factories were once prominent.
“We’ll actually be out having people in the community,” says Bonnie Smith, regional press officer for the EPA. “… That’s something specific and real on the educational side.”
Getting people to buy in is another challenge. In Port Richmond, Summers and Zatyko are surprised I’ve come up here to write about the environmental concerns of their neighborhood. They tout the familiar refrain of certain communities: They may be part of Philadelphia but don’t feel like City Hall makes them a priority.
“You don’t know what you’re breathing in,” Zatyko said, “and they don’t care.”