January 1990 Issue #3 ECOLOGIA NEWSLETTER Archive

January 1990 Issue #3

Reclaiming Blue Mountain:

The Greening of a "Biological Desert" in Palmerton, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

For years, outsiders who drove through the city of Palmerton, Pennslyvania have observed the mountain covered with dead trees which overlooks the valley city, and commented,"Thank goodness we don't live here." Few of those travellers understood the combination of human decisions and the responses of the natural world which had "killed" the mountain forest. Similarly, few passers-by knew how complete the devastation had been - that the soil itself was so contaminated with toxic metals that living things could not survive. Earthworms and other forms of invertebrate life had vanished from the mountain. Deer and horses born in the area died before reaching maturity. Young saplings of most varieties of trees couldn't survive. Even the micro-organisms which act to decay dead wood and leaves could not survive in Blue Mountain soil. It was indeed a "biological desert", to use the words of a Penn State forest hydrologist, and "not even a dandelion would grow there."

What had brought this situation about? Palmerton had been the site of a flourishing zinc smelting industry since 1898, and smelting did not stop until December 1980. For almost 90 years, the smelters had operated, emitting zinc, lead, cadmium and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. Particulates settled in the soil, and on foliage, thus entering the food chain.

Why did the people of Palmerton continue to live there without large- scale demonstrations and protests? The majority of the people in Palmerton accepted the environmental problems without challenge or criticism, because Palmerton was a "company town", and most families had members who either worked for the zinc smelting factories, or who benefited from the business of those who did. Studies documenting the severity of the contamination of the area were conducted by natural scientists from nearby universities, and representatives of federal agencies, who concentrated upon the impact upon plants and animals, not upon humans.

There have been relatively few studies of the impact of the zinc smelting pollution on the health of humans in the Palmerton area. Some studies have found a much higher incidence of lung disease in Palmerton than would otherwise be expected. Elevated cadmium and lead levels were detected in children's hair. There is no systematic documentation of long- term human health problems in the area, however. This is at least partly because of the lack of concern among the residents themselves, who have not demanded or supported intrusive personal health studies. This is in dramatic contrast to other areas of contamination, such as Love Canal in Buffalo, New York, where residents have been the motive force behind cleanup efforts. In Love Canal, community leaders themselves initiated health studies to document incidents of miscarriages and rare forms of cancer to document the significance of the environmental problems. Because of the politics of Palmerton's situation, soil problems, not human health, became the focus of clean-up efforts.

Scientists meticulously studied various forms of life in the area, documenting the incidence of different types of diseases among the larger animals, and recording the presence or absence of lichen and mosses, grasses, earthworms and slugs, shrews, beetles and mites, birds, and different species of trees in the eco-system of Blue Mountain and in a radius around it. They also dissected fish, birds and animals to see the different concentrations of metals in their organs. Scientists discovered high concentrations of zinc in the diets of the white-tailed deer (which feed on foliage contaminated by particulate emissions). The deer suffered from osteochondriasis, a disease of the cartilege of the joints, which kept fawns from growing to maturity.

It is hard to generalize about the impact of the Palmerton pollutants on other species, because their body chemistry handles heavy metals in different ways. For example, zinc proved to be very harmful to the deer, but zinc is easily excreted by humans and is not considered a hazard to humans at levels that clearly were hazardous to the deer. However, another heavy metal, cadmium, was found in very high concentrations in the soil in Palmerton's home gardens. A plant physiologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommended that residents not grow garden vegetables, "or at least that they not grow plants whose roots or leaves are eaten, where the cadmium tends to be concentrated."

Not only was Blue Mountain a biological wasteland, its soil was eroding because of the loss of tree root support. One to two feet of topsoil was washed downriver, thus spreading the contamination downstream.

The United States Federal Government became involved when Blue Mountain was put on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) "Superfund" cleanup list, meaning that federal funds could be committed to improving the conditions of this "disaster area", if private industries did not act. This was a "top-down" action, on the initiative of the federal authorities, and was not a response to "grassroots" community organizing. Quite the contrary! Public sentiment in Palmerton was overwhelmingly in support of the zinc smelting companies, and hostile to the EPA representatives.

Ed Shoener, now the Director of the Northeastern Pennsylvania office of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources, and then a project manager for the EPA, comments, "I've never experienced anything like that first public meeting in Palmerton. EPA officials become used to public criticism, because often we're brought in after there's a major problem, and citizens are angry and upset about their environment and their health. Usually at public meetings, EPA representatives are accused of protecting polluting industries and not moving fast enough to protect the natural environment. But that meeting at Palmerton was really different. Citizens were criticizing us for getting involved, saying they were fine, the industry was fine, and they really wanted us to go away and leave Blue Mountain alone."

Despite the lack of community support, however, the EPA proceeded with its work to revitalize Blue Mountain. To deal with the problem, the EPA realized that it was impossible to "fence off" the contaminated soil, and that removing it would just further contribute to erosion. Agronomists experimented with various solutions to re-vitalize the soil. They came up with a mixture of two waste products - sewage sludge (from nearby Allentown's wastewater treatment plant) and fly ash (from coal-fired electrical power plants in Washingtonville). The scientists first tested the mix in a greenhouse, mixing toxic soil from Blue Mountain with the sludge and fly ash, then planting different species of grass, legumes and trees. Seeds were able to germinate in this new soil! Then they planted test plots on the mountain itself. The one-acre test plots worked out very well, supporting a variety of plants, including groundcovers, grasses, and pine, oak, maple, birch and poplar trees. Deer were even observed grazing in the test areas.

In conclusion, the revegetation of Blue Mountain, which has just begun, may provide a model for efforts to reclaim ecologically devastated soil in many other parts of the world. The New Jersey Zinc Company has taken an active role in the revegetation process, and is now joining with federal and state agencies and the natural scientists. Interested visitors from other states or countries are welcome to visit Blue Mountain, and the Palmerton area, and to speak with those involved in the revegetation project.

Information for this article was obtained from the following sources: "The Smoke That Settled Over Palmerton", by Nelson Beyer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel Maryland, U.S.A. 20708, New Jersey Audobon, Summer Volume 9, No. 3, l983; also "Life After Death for Blue Mountain", by Julie Lalo, in Pennsylvania Wildlife, Vol. VIII, No. 5.

Ed Shoener is now the Director of the Wilkes-Barre office of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources, which is responsible for the area of Northeastern Pennsylvania. His current interests are in controlling the permitting process to ensure that only safely-run waste facilities are licensed to operate, and in enforcing the laws to promote cleaner air and water in the area. He is a member of the Board of Directors of ECOLOGIA.

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