In the early decades of the 1900s, Ambler gained the proud reputation as “The Asbestos Capital of the World.”
In 1881, the Keasbey and Mattison Company established its home in Ambler and developed the small village into a thriving industrial center around what became its asbestos plant. The company brought in raw asbestos from Quebec by train, which it processed to create asbestos to fulfill the burgeoning demand for asbestos in the manufacturing and construction industries.
Until the late 1970s when public health concerns caused a rapid decline in asbestos usage, construction, manufacturing, and other heavy industries relied on asbestos for a wide range of functions. Pennsylvania’s steel mills used the mineral to protect workers from sustaining burns from hot furnaces and boilers, dressing their employees in coveralls, gloves, masks, and aprons made of asbestos fibers.
Locomotive builders used asbestos in similar ways, insulating elements of locomotive engines with the fire-resistant fibers. Pennsylvania’s shipbuilders turned to asbestos, too, using it in insulation, paint, and decking material to reduce the risk of fires on vessels carrying oil and gas.
For the residents of Ambler, Pennsylvania, however, asbestos became a part of their daily lives. The asbestos plant changed corporate hands several times during the 20th century, first to Turner & Newall then to CertainTeed Corporation and Nicolet Industries, which went bankrupt in 1987 after the decline of asbestos usage that culminated in the 1989 Asbestos Ban and Phaseout Rule.
Years after the manufacturing plant closed its doors, however, Ambler residents still live with the fallout of the town’s asbestos manufacturing plant – and, in many cases, chronic and life-threatening asbestos-related illnesses.
Even so, the town has begun to see a revitalization in recent years. Spurred by the Environmental Protection Agency’s cleanup efforts and local activists like REACH Ambler, the city has taken the first of many steps toward recovery. However, many Ambler, PA, residents continue to worry about the threat of exposure to the carcinogenic fibers and how local development could increase the risk of exposure to asbestos.
What Is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a type of mineral consisting of flexible, heat and corrosion-resistant fibers. Before officials became aware of the risks of asbestos exposure, manufacturers used the material in numerous products, ranging from roofing shingles to insulation to cement and more.
When undisturbed, asbestos is largely harmless to humans. However, it’s easy to inhale or ingest airborne asbestos fibers. When asbestos is disturbed, the fibers are released into the air. The fibers can then become lodged in the heart, lungs, or abdomen. With time, asbestos fibers lead to inflammation, scarring, illness, or cancers, including mesothelioma, lung cancer, ovarian cancer, and laryngeal cancer.
Ambler, Pennsylvania: The Town Asbestos Built
Ambler, Pennsylvania’s asbestos story began in the late 1880s, when the community was the village of Wissahickon. Richard Mattison and Henry Keasbey, who owned a patent medicine company, moved their business to Wissahickon due to its proximity to Philadelphia, a local railroad station, limestone, and spring water.
Shortly after moving to Wissahickon, Mattison discovered that mixing asbestos and magnesium carbonate would create a durable pipe insulator. He and his partner Keasbey wasted no time in turning their patent medicine company into an asbestos manufacturing plant dedicated to finding as many ways to use asbestos as possible.
In the 1880s, they opened their mill and effectively created Ambler, the factory town. Within the doors of the Ambler, PA, asbestos manufacturing plant, workers developed construction products, clothing, paper goods, automobile products, asbestos yarn, and more.
As a result of the Keasbey & Mattison Company’s extensive production, the company also created Ambler’s “White Mountains”: towering asbestos waste piles situated near the plant. There, the company dumped 1.5 million cubic yards of asbestos waste between the 1930s and 1970s.
As a result, asbestos exposure in Ambler, Pennsylvania, wasn’t limited to those working in the factory. Instead, wind gusts would blow asbestos dust into nearby yards and homes. Children would also play on the asbestos piles or in the playgrounds and parks built near the dumping grounds.
Even after the Keasbey & Mattison Company ran into financial trouble during the Great Depression, other asbestos manufacturing companies purchased the factory and kept the asbestos industry alive in Ambler. However, as workers and officials came to understand the risks of asbestos exposure, the Environmental Protection Agency began to intercede at Ambler Asbestos.
In 1987, after thousands of current and former employees filed lawsuits related to asbestos exposure, Ambler Asbestos’ final owner, Nicolet Industries, filed for bankruptcy and closed the doors at the asbestos manufacturing plant. Unfortunately, the damage was already done.
The Ambler Asbestos Waste Piles Superfund Site
Shortly before Ambler Asbestos filed for bankruptcy, the White Mountains of Ambler received a new name: the Ambler Asbestos Piles. As the Environmental Protection Agency began to take steps to reduce the risk of asbestos exposure in cities like Ambler, the government group designated the area a Superfund site.
Designating the area as a Superfund site enabled the EPA to use funds to clean up the contaminated area. Under the EPA’s watch, the asbestos manufacturing companies in Amber covered the piles with two feet of soil then surrounded the waste piles with a fence.
The Ambler Asbestos Piles weren’t the only location in Ambler to receive Superfund site designation, though. In 2009, the BoRit site received the designation after a developer proposed a new high-rise building in the area. Had the developer received approval, the construction would have contaminated the air, water, and city with asbestos fibers and waste.
Thanks to the Citizens for a Better Ambler Group activists, the EPA became aware of the BoRit site. The agency completed the initial phase of the BoRit site cleanup in 2015.
Will Capping the Asbestos Piles Prevent Further Asbestos Exposure?
While the EPA has overseen the capping of both the Ambler Asbestos Piles and the BoRit site, residents and activists remain unsure if the tactic will eliminate the risk of asbestos exposure in the future.
In theory, capping the asbestos piles with dirt should prevent the fibers from escaping into the air or entering groundwater. However, studies have shown that the presence of dissolved organic matter (DOM) could coat the fibers and enable them to work through the soil cap.
That said, the same study indicates that soil without DOM will effectively prevent asbestos from escaping. Even so, for the longtime residents of Ambler, PA, asbestos still poses a real and present threat.
For example, Pennsylvania already ranks third in asbestos-related deaths and illnesses in the United States. However, due to Ambler’s history, it’s no surprise that the city experiences elevated levels of asbestos-related illnesses and cancer compared to the rest of the state.
In 2011, the Pennsylvania Department of Health found that Ambler residents had three times as many cases of asbestos-related illnesses, such as mesothelioma, as other cities in Pennsylvania.
Halpern Law Firm: Experienced Ambler, PA, Asbestos Lawyers
Have you or a family member been affected by asbestos? At Halpern Law Firm, we know how complicated, confusing, and challenging asbestos exposure can be. That’s why our team of experienced Ambler, PA, asbestos attorneys commits to assisting victims and their families in claiming the compensation they need to restore their lives. Contact us today at (800) 505-6000.
Page Reviewed and Edited by
Dave Halpern, Mesothelioma Attorney
Dave Halpern is a Pennsylvania and New Jersey mesothelioma attorney with over 30 years of experience. He has investigated hundreds of cases and won numerous multimillion dollar settlements and verdicts for asbestos victims. Dave prides himself on working tirelessly to help his clients in their time of need.