The Waste Stream: John T. Lewis Lead Works, Philadelphia, PA

I maintain a fine art practice in addition to my commercial photography studio. This work is a continuation of a project I’ve posted about before entitled ‘The Waste Stream‘. 

The Waste Stream is a series of pinhole photographs created at former industrial sites that have been repurposed for residential and recreational use by humans. Each lens is constructed on site using a piece of consumer waste found at that specific location. This process results in diffraction and blurring of the scene which creates a visual layer for the viewer to consider, and draws attention to the treatment of the land as an expendable commodity. The impacts of the former industry and the wastes they’ve generated are not always apparent on the surface, yet remain pervasive. 

I recently made photographs on the site of the former John T. Lewis Lead Works in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The John T. Lewis Lead Works

The John T. Lewis & Brothers (JTL) White Lead and Color Works was established in 1813 in the Kensington section of Philadelphia, an industrial neighborhood comprised of factories and dense blocks of row homes built to house their workers. Producing lead paints, powders, pipes, and other lead-related chemicals and products, JTL was one of about a dozen lead smelters that operated in Kensington during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Ownership of the large eight acre, 52 building complex passed through a variety of companies over the subsequent decades, and operations continued through the 20th century. The final owner, Anzon, bought the site in the late 1980’s. By this time the Lead Works had been a fixture in the community for well over a century. The jobs it provided to the surrounding community came at a high environmental cost to residents, with clouds of lead dust billowing daily out over their homes from nine large smokestacks high above the ground. EPA records show that while under Anzon ownership, the plant released over 200,000 lbs. of lead waste alone between 1991 and 1995. Accidents (a 1991 waste management accident that released 100 pounds of lead smoke and led to the evacuation of 75 people) and a 1988 arson fire released further waste.

Those living near the factory had long been worried about the impact the factory was having on their health, and environmental agencies began evaluating the site in the 1980’s. Locals that grew up near the plant recall routine family evacuations as children; a siren in the plant signaled a fire, spill or accident, which was the cue to head to family or friends living outside the area. Residents filed several lawsuits against Anzon alleging regulatory violations and negligence. The company responded by closing the plant in 1996.

The Site Closes

Lead dust can remain on the surface of soil for hundreds of years. Upon the site’s closure, environmental regulators required Anzon to address soil contamination inside the factory’s property boundaries.

Polluted sites are remediated by either removing the pollution and disposing of it in approved off-site landfills, or encapsulating the pollution underneath some form of capping to form a barrier between the public and the waste. These can be non-permeable surfaces such as buildings or parking lots, or permeable vegetative caps made up of a layer of clean soil and vegetation. Permeable vegetative caps encourage proper drainage while maintaining a barrier between the waste and the public; the roots of the vegetation soak up rainwater, keeping it from reaching the waste below and potentially leeching into the water table.

Anzon chose encapsulation. The factory was razed and the site was redeveloped into a shopping center, capping most of the polluted soil with suburban style retail shops, parking lots, and a Wawa gas station. The remaining parcels were covered with permeable caps of clean soil and vegetation. The largest of these parcels, a hill nicknamed ‘Mount Wawa’ by locals due to its proximity to the gas station, soon became an informal playground and sledding site used by local children. The parcels also became popular places for locals to walk their dogs.

While Anzon was required to address pollution within the boundaries of the site itself, it wasn’t required to address possible pollution in the surrounding residential neighborhood. 

A Leaded Neighborhood

No level of lead exposure is considered safe for anyone, but children under the age of five, infants, and unborn children are at particular risk. Even small amounts of lead exposure at these early ages can cause damage to the brain and nervous system, learning and behavioral problems, and a lower IQ. Some researchers associate early lead exposure with autism. Research has also shown that exposure to lead at a young age can cause neurological disorders later in life, such as alzheimer’s disease and dementia. 

The smelting process generates lead dust as waste, and records of lead exposure-related illnesses in the area affecting workers in the factories and their families go back decades. In 1907, a neighborhood hospital treated almost two dozen lead-poisoned workers from a single factory in a two-year span. In the 1970’s, a researcher collected several hundred baby teeth from school-aged children in two Philadelphia neighborhoods, including Kensington. He found high lead concentrations in the teeth of about 100 children living next to the still operational JTL plant.

As part of a 2014 study carried out by the CDC and the EPA, almost twenty years after the factory had been torn down, officials drew blood from over 100 children living near the long-since redeveloped JTL site. About 11% of those tested had elevated levels of lead in their blood; nationally, the average is just 2.5%. The agencies also tested tap water, household dust and backyard soil from these children’s homes. Of the backyard soil samples, over 70% were contaminated with more than 400 parts per million (ppm) of lead, the EPA’s potentially hazardous level. The study concluded that children living near the former JTL site were six times more likely than children nationwide to have elevated levels of lead in their bodies. 

The surrounding community is well-aware of the presence of lead in their soil and the danger it poses to themselves, their families, and their pets. However, political inaction, corporate legal maneuvering, the once-prolific nature of lead in products, and the density inherent in an urban environment has made addressing the issue extremely difficult.

PRP’s, the Superfund, and Who’s Responsible

Making responsible polluters (referred to as Potentially Responsible Parties (PRP’s) by the EPA) pay for cleanups is a standard approach of federal and state environmental agencies. Attempts to designate the last owner of the site (Anzon) a PRP and thus liable for cleaning up the surrounding neighborhood failed. Anzon’s lawyers successfully argued that it was impossible to definitively link the pollution to the JTL site. The pollution could be the result of lead paint, leaded gasoline, or past activity by other area lead factories. This left the site with no PRP. Sites with no PRPs are knows as ‘orphan sites’ and fall solely under the purview of the EPA Superfund.

The term ‘Superfund Site’ references the Superfund itself, a federal ‘polluter pays’ trust fund that originated in the early 1980’s through taxes on oil and chemical companies. The Superfund would allow the EPA to assist PRP’s in their cleanup efforts. Alternatively, if a site is left an orphan site – be it through corporate reorganizations, bankruptcy, and/or legal language that limited or shed environmental liabilities – the EPA could fund a cleanup itself through the Superfund. 

However, the original ‘polluter pays’ taxes were allowed to expire in 1995 and weren’t renewed. The revenue from these taxes ran out in 2003; the EPA grew increasingly reliant on general taxpayer revenue for the Superfund and cleanup actions slowed. The number of cleanup actions was 91 in 1999. In 2021, it was only 14. At it’s peak balance in 1997, the Superfund contained $4.7 billion. By 2022, the Superfund had a balance of just $67 million. 

This has severely limited the capabilities of the EPA to handle orphan sites. In general, the agency has also shown a reluctance to use the Superfund to clean up lead in urban soil, even next to old lead factories. Echoing Anzon, the EPA and CDC have argued that lead in urban soil cannot be definitely linked to particular factories. The EPA says that it lacks the authority or money to address pollution from non-factory sources. A 2011 EPA memo about the JTL site candidly acknowledged that addressing the issue of lead in urban soil likely exceeded the EPA’s resources. 

As a result of this political and legal inaction, residents have been taking matters into their own hands. Some have paid to replace contaminated soil in their own yards or capped them with cement.

The Future of The Site

The once industrial neighborhood surrounding the JTL site has become the site of frenzied real estate development in recent years. Old factories and empty lots are being replaced by trendy cafes, shops and new homes selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The development stirs up dormant lead dust, exposing residents new and old. This makes managing exposure to lead extremely difficult for residents.

New development has also focused on the former JTL site itself. A six-story apartment building was recently announced for a portion of the former lead works (shown below) that had been encapsulated with a permeable vegetative cap. Currently a pile of contaminated soil topped by grass and surrounded by a chain link fence, the hope is to build a six-story, 155-unit apartment complex on the land.

A positive development for the Superfund occurred in 2021 when ‘polluter pays’ taxes were reinstated as part of a federal infrastructure package. These reinstated taxes are expected to generate over $14 billion over the coming decade for the Superfund, giving the agency the chance to reverse almost three decades of slowing progress.