big zinc,
small town

By Rhiannon Harwi

When one travels into the town of Palmerton in Eastern Pennsylvania, they will find that it looks like any average small town in America. Mom-and-pop-shops line the main street, a small city park is nestled in the town square, and kids can often be seen crossing the avenues as they are led back into the local elementary school. There, you can also find the Palmerton Library, which is a resource seen as outdated now in our modern times, yet which holds much valuable information about Palmerton’s long and complicated history with zinc.

The New Jersey Zinc Company set up a plant in 1912 to take advantage of anthracite coal mining in the region and local zinc mines in New Jersey. The zinc smelting operation ended in 1980, but the town has been dealing with bigger issues, beyond the economic impact of the loss of jobs. Pollution and contamination have run rampant in the town in the years since the shut-down. And even worse? These issues will continue to be a problem for many decades to come.

Down in the basement of the Palmerton Library, amidst the children’s area lined with old VHS tapes, one will find an area surrounded by three walls of shelves with information about Palmerton, the zinc company, and the contamination along the mountainside, in people’s homes and yards, and even within the townspeople’s bodies. Pamphlets and other documents reinforce the power and authority the zinc company had over the town with almost propaganda-like booklets detailing the uses of zinc and metals for different household products like toys, clocks, and cars. It is easy to see why so many residents stayed loyal to the town in this way. Amidst these advertisements are also extremely detailed records of the clean-up process in and outside of people’s homes. Records upon records of the zinc dust decontamination on people’s furniture, lead levels in children, and vegetation exposure to chemicals are clearly laid out in binders from many, many years ago.

The controversy at Palmerton can easily be described as some form of “environmental injustice” as one 1998 Palmerton high school graduate, Stentor Danielson, notes in a paper he wrote about the Palmerton Superfund site in 2001. At the same time, the success of the company to smelt so much zinc can also be seen as a byproduct of the industrial western world’s greatest labors. Zinc provided a lot for the people materialistically, despite its later-known detrimental health effects. One pamphlet mentions products made with zinc, like cosmetics.


“Zinc oxide finds a wide use in the manufacturer of products such as ointments, face powders, talcum powders, and sunburn cream. Our zinc oxide used for these products is of exceptional purity, smoothness, and whiteness. It is non-toxic and is opaque to ultra-violet light. This type of oxide is of interest to the manufacturer of skin creams and powders for preventing the penetration of the sun’s rays which cause sunburn,” it reads.

A printed advertisement like this could easily sway unsuspecting townsfolk to support the zinc company, instead of allowing them to know the truth about what problems zinc could actually cause.

Yet, zinc remains a very useful and important element found in nature and in the human body. Humans need zinc to grow. It is vital for brain development, immune system function, and reproduction, just to name a few. Similarly, nature relies on zinc for even the most basic functions. Everything from organisms, plants, and water to rocks, air, and soil require concentrations of zinc to support metabolic functions. But when humans extract zinc from the earth and turn it into things like toys, clocks, and cars, a whole ecosystem could suffer. This is what happened to Palmerton.

Pages from New Jersey Zinc Company’s magazine.

Mark Urban used to live near the area and understands why Palmerton residents stayed loyal to the very company that was polluting their homes. “I think that people need a job to feed their family and pay their rent,” explained Urban, who is a biologist and associate professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut. “That’s everyone’s first priority even if the business you work for is poisoning the city. It’s just too bad that too many people need to make the choice between a job and poison, a paycheck and a mountain. No one should need to make that choice in our country.”

A statement like this speaks volumes for not just the close-knit, industrialized community of Palmerton, but for the country and world as a whole. Sometimes, the processes that work to support business and job potential are also the downfalls of our environment.

Driving to Palmeton from nearby Allentown on a rainy, cool March morning, I passed through several rural Pennsylvania towns and observed the landscapes. Empty fields of greens and browns, roads that lead to nowhere, small towns that seem charming from a distance, and dilapidated buildings every so often amidst the better-bearing homes. This is rural Pennsylvania. I also noticed trash lining highways, backroads, and intersections alike. Styrofoam, plastic, broken car parts; you name the indispensable junk alongside the road, and you are sure to find it. My hypersensitivity to and disgust at the lack of human regard for the surrounding environment while on the way to the trip was the perfect setting scene.

In reaching the Lehigh Gap, the mountains give way to the Lehigh River that flows rapidly past Palmerton and the former zinc plant, and you can feel the direct effect pollutants have taken on the eerier mountainside. The Gap is full of pollution, just like the roads on the way to it are. Yet, it is present in a completely different way. At the Gap, there is no visible pollution. You won’t see water bottles lining the trails or plastic bags strewn in with the trees. In truth, the area looks pretty normal and typical for a mountainous region. Except for when you turn around the mountain. There, you are faced with a barren landscape of terrain that once flourished with life. The contamination, is in fact, soaked into the ground as a result of years of factory pollution.

The Lehigh River as it runs through the Gap.

As of 2014, in the United States alone, there were over 1,000 superfund sites. This number is not much different now. And with the General Assembly remarking that “just over a decade is all that remains to stop irreversible damage from climate change“, it is more important now than ever to look at these Superfund sites, along with other polluted and neglected areas.

Every town has a history. A history involving the people who live there, the actions that took place there starting from when it was established, and the industries there which made the area an invaluable part of the economy and society, overall. Palmerton’s history is somewhat tragic, but that doesn’t mean its future needs to follow such a path. Palmerton is just one region…of one state…of one country. A lot can change when people are made more aware of the issue and contribute to the restoration of a place, especially if it is one they call home.

Rhiannon Harwi

Rhiannon Harwi is a senior Wescoe student at Muhlenberg College who studies Media and Communication and Studio Art. After noticing heavy amounts of trash and pollution on her local rail trail and surrounding community areas, she became very interested in land conservation and environmental clean-up. She has focused her efforts on recognizing the importance of nature in all spaces, starting with observations of the issue in her small town. Now, she looks for ways to be more conscious of her own land use and that of the planet’s overall consumption of resources. When she is not educating herself about land preservation, Rhiannon enjoys spending time with her family and friends. She also recognizes that being outdoors any time of the year and enjoying nature is something she always hopes to make time for in her life.