The Waste Stream: The Ambler Asbestos Piles and BoRit Asbestos Superfund Sites

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‘. 

For this project, I make photographs at former industrial waste sites that’ve been repurposed for recreational and residential use by humans. Each photograph for this project is created with a site-specific pinhole lens constructed using a piece of consumer waste I find at that particular location. The pinhole photography process results in diffraction and blurring of the scene which creates a permanent visual layer for the viewer to consider, and references the treatment of the land as an expendable commodity.

I recently made photographs in Ambler, Pennsylvania, located about 15 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Ambler is home to two Superfund Sites related to the asbestos industry, the Ambler Asbestos Piles Superfund Site and the BoRit Asbestos Superfund Site.

The Asbestos Capital of the World

Keasbey and Mattison Company (K&M), a manufacturer of asbestos containing products, began operating in Ambler in the 1880’s. K&M invested heavily in the small town of about 250 residents, building more than 400 new houses for workers, a factory, offices, an opera house, and a church. By World War I, Ambler was known as the ‘asbestos capital of the world’, and asbestos made in Ambler was widely used in electrical insulation, fire-retardant coatings, concrete, bricks, plaster, cement, roofing tiles, flooring, and brake pads, among many other commercial products. 

K&N was acquired in the mid 1930’s by another company that continued manufacturing asbestos products at the factory. Around this time, manufacturing waste began accumulating into large outdoor piles and lagoons at the edge of the factory. These waste sites were open to the elements. Local children used them as a playground, building forts and sledding down them on cardboard in the summertime, throwing asbestos dust into the air. By 1962 the main dumping piles for asbestos waste had reached 20 to 30 feet high, and were known locally as ‘The White Mountains’.

Negative Health Effects of Asbestos

The negative health effects of asbestos were first noted at the turn of the 20th century, and asbestosis, a chronic illness caused by the inhalation of asbestos, was first reported by English doctors in 1924. By the 1950’s evidence linking asbestos to cancer was mounting; people exposed to asbestos for 20 years or more had a 10 times higher risk of developing lung cancer than the general population. Mesothelioma, a formerly rare cancer, was found in epidemic proportions at an asbestos mine in South Africa. A study in the 1960’s indicated that simply living near an asbestos factory or in a building insulated with asbestos, would would increase the risk of getting mesothelioma.

Various companies produced asbestos products in Ambler until 1989. The EPA began restricting the sale of asbestos containing products in the 1970’s. The 1989 Asbestos Ban and Phaseout Rule banned most remaining products; while this was overturned two years later in 1991 and the United States has not actually banned asbestos, health concerns have ensured that few commercial products remain in the United States marketplace. 

The Two Superfund Sites

The Ambler Asbestos Piles Superfund Site was established in 1986. It’s the larger of the two sites and contains The White Mountains. The EPA determined that removing the 1.5 million cubic yards of asbestos contained within them – enough to fill 150,000 dumpsters- was unrealistic. It would have required years of round the clock trucks running through Ambler and risked spreading the asbestos dust throughout the area. The decision was made to cover the hills in a vegetative cap, forming steep hills covered in a thick cover of grass and trees and surrounded by fencing. This decision was – and remains- controversial among many residents of Ambler.

A second, nearby site contained a 25 foot waste pile, a waste reservoir, and the site of a former park and playground that was closed in the 1980’s. Attempts to develop condos on the former park inspired community opposition and led to the BoRit Asbestos Superfund Site being established in 2006. The waste pile received a vegetative cap. The reservoir, believed to have asbestos tiles and piping within the berms surrounding it, was drained of millions of gallons of potentially contaminated water. It’s since become the Wissahickon Waterfowl Preserve, a popular place for birdwatchers.

Based on an understanding that asbestos couldn’t be transfered through soil or water, the EPA didn’t include groundwater considerations in their approach for either site and don’t currently monitor the groundwater. More recent studies have shown that asbestos transmission through soil and water may be possible. This raises concern among critics who note that the sites are within a few hundred yards of the Wissahickon Creek, a tributary of the Schuylkill River which flows through Philadelphia. Portions of these site are vulnerable to flooding, and critics fear that future climate change and rising sea levels will only exacerbate this problem.

Those in Ambler continue to be impacted by their industrial past; a study showed that between 1992 and 2008, Ambler had a mesothelioma rate three times higher than the statewide average.