A Tale of Two Toxic Cities
By Jacqueline McKenna & Carina K. Nicolaisen
In the early 1900s, zinc plants and smelters were built in small towns across America allowing local businesses and communities to thrive. Children played and families strolled down the streets of their newly bustling towns. Soft smoke rolled out of pipes secured on their nearby factory reflecting warm tones in the sunsets. It was a great time for these small towns relying on the new industries and factories that employed them. In many cases, these factories belonged to The NJ Zinc Company. Once the largest producer of zinc in the U.S., The NJ Zinc Company grew to accommodate the increasing need of zinc and iron for film, construction and various other industries. Their arrival in small towns across the nation led to thriving communities. The plants created jobs and allowed for greater economic liberties. Even throughout the Great Depression, the NJ Zinc Company faithfully continued to employ their workers and ensure a salary was available. This idyllic representation of “the American Dream” lasted for decades until the late 1900s when the plants closed. After closing, the negative impact in towns, like DePue, IL and Palmerton, PA, was truly realized. Specifically, these two sites were added to the Superfund National Priorities List by the EPA in 1983 in Palmerton and and 1997 in DePue.
Palmerton and DePue, two towns impacted by The NJ Zinc Company, have strikingly similar pasts. Historically, in Palmerton, PA, European immigrants settled due to the Walking Purchase where they used the slopes of the Lehigh Gap, a rift carved through the Blue Mountains by the Lehigh River. They used the slopes for agriculture and the forest for other resources like timber. When anthracite coal was found, the land became more impoverished as it became an epicenter for coal transportation. In 1898, the NJ Zinc Company moved in. While the company treated its employees well and essentially created the town of Palmerton, they wreaked havoc on the local environment. This company smelted zinc close to the coal plants releasing harmful and unregulated pollutants. Due to the land use and zinc smelter close by, the soil became contaminated and uninhabitable. Eventually, the EPA quarantined the area and deemed it a Superfund site.
Similarly, when European settlers packed up their covered wagons to head west they stumbled upon the land that later became the town of DePue. Upon seeing the lake and vast wilderness, overflowing with wild game and resources, they stayed and began to develop the town standing there today. The New Jersey Zinc Plant moved into DePue in a comparable fashion to Palmerton. In order to keep up with the increasing demand of zinc, the New Jersey Zinc Company moved west into Illinois where it established a zinc smelter in DePue in 1905, only 7 years after they were secured in Palmerton. While both Palmerton and DePue accepted community contributions and had many positive social and economic successes due to the zinc plants, the environmental consequences left behind were horrendous. Due to the entry of the NJ Zinc Company, dangerous heavy metals, like zinc, cadmium, lead, and several more, were deposited at both sites. However, despite this similar timeline of events, the recognition of the sites by the EPA is where the similarities come to a grinding halt.
A place’s history leaves marks upon the people, the community, and the values of that place making it special and differentiating it from anywhere else. In the case of Palmerton, PA and DePue, IL, this past is strikingly similar but today, the towns seem to reflect entirely different stories. So, what happened that changed one town’s path and not the other?
To start, the environmental health risks vastly reflect upon the current state of the towns and their communities. The close call Palmerton encountered while beginning remediation is one of the aspects that makes their story so unique. Originally, surface waters, as at any site, became contaminated from the site as described on EPA’s site description, “heavy metals contaminated dust, soil, shallow groundwater and surface water.” However despite this contamination, the site would have polluted the Lehigh River and other nearby watersheds much more heavily if left in its own isolation. At the start of remediation, the pH of the Lehigh Gap’s slopes was on the very verge of allowing the heavy metals present like zinc, cadmium, lead, etc. to easily become soluble in rainwater, it would be like sugar dissolving in water. This increase in solubility would carry vast amounts of dangerous heavy metals into the Lehigh River and surface waters threatening public safety and making remediation even more difficult. Luckily, the remediation occured at this site just in time; limestone was added to the slopes which increased the pH and kept the heavy metals immobile in their terrestrial resting place. “Public health isn’t a concern at our site”, says Chad Schwartz, Director of Science and Education at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, the nature center now sitting on the remediated Palmerton Superfund site, “we were able to raise the pH [of the soil] just in time.” While the Lehigh River is still not a portrait of health, it is no longer polluted by the Superfund site’s toxic metals but rather other sources from post-industrial processes and abandoned mines. In the case of Palmerton, the quick action and efficient remediation timeline is what saved this town years of advocacy and anguish.
Meanwhile, in DePue, the citizens were not as lucky. The heavy metals in the soil are still partially exposed as the sites haven’t been completely capped and contained the way the Palmerton site was. The heavy metals became soluble in water and were able to runoff into Lake DePue and nearby ground and surface waters. “In some instances, the concentrations [of metals] in groundwater exceed Illinois’ regulatory standards,” says Krista McKim, Remedial Project Manager. Despite the remedial action taken at Lake DePue, like dredging out the sediment, the lake still remains contaminated with heavy metals. This contamination is well recognized in the community and even leaves Lake DePue with titles like, “America’s Dirtiest Boat Race”. The remediation in DePue is still ongoing and has been for years. In addition, citizens are becoming continually frustrated with the slow clean-up process and voice their opinions in videos on the Clean-up Depue Website saying “they’re making all these promises, they have to take action and clean it up as soon as possible.” Citizens continue to question why the mess NJ Zinc Company made is still present despite the acknowledgement of the responsible parties. “As a citizen of DePue, we would ultimately like to see it cleaned up […] we did not do this, nature didn’t do this,” says Keith Garcia “the responsible parties NJ Zinc, Exxon, CBS- they should be held accountable.” Despite the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s affirmations that the site’s cancer risks are within or below the CERCLA target hazard index, citizens are still skeptical about the risks that the lake may hold. The quick action in Palmerton saved the site from irreversibly polluting the waters and becoming a lasting health threat. Capping and containing the pollutants at superfund sites like these is essential in remediating ecological and human health threats. It’s amazing how the slight acidity of a landscape contributed so heavily to an entire town’s future. By looking at the governmental and community action, as well as the EPA involvement for each site, one can see the distinct differences between how the situations of the two towns are handled.
In 1997 the EPA listed the DePue site on the National Priorities List. Several years later in 2002, the village of DePue was granted services from the Superfund Redevelopment Initiative to enact a community-based reuse planning system. The process included a community effort, as the team worked closely with environmental consultants and industrial site architects, with support from both the federal EPA and Illinois EPA. This 19-member community effort was labeled the Land Use Committee, whose goal was to include a diversified range of aspects from DePue locals. The effort focused on the needs of the community and site reuse challenges as well as opportunities. However, due to other unspecified conflicts and circumstances, attendance of Committee members at meetings was low. So, the team had to focus on other aspects of research, such as businesses and industries in the area, surrounding parks and recreational services, and other links to economic and environmental action.
Unlike in Palmerton, the strategy was to adapt the DePue facility as a new museum of history and industry to show off DePue’s natural and industrial culture. Other suggestions for the redevelopment included: promoting DePue as a tourist destination so ecotourism could act as a unique local economic development opportunity, creating recreational opportunities at the site by linking the site to surrounding recreational services, and, finally, providing opportunities for ecological restoration, wildlife habitat enhancements and general environmental education. While the latter strategy is the most similar to Palmerton’s restoration process, it was not widely advocated for, largely due to a perceived sense of powerlessness in the remediation of the site resulting in inconsistent community involvement.
There are also a number of challenges that the citizens of DePue face as they seek to rejuvenate their community and restore the Superfund site into their physical environment. Like many other rural towns with an industrial history, DePue has not been able to transition to a feasible post-industrial economy. Not only is the site still contaminated, but the existing stigma around being a registered Superfund-site town contributes to a lacking employment base and unstable demographics. The community’s morale is low due to the slow remediation process, causing frustration for residents and local government representatives. However, the remedial process of the site is lead by the NJ Zinc Company and there is progress at the gypsum stack. DePue Village President Eric Bryant said that they plan to “crush 60 percent of the [gypsum] stack with heavy equipment and burn some of the grasses, then a liner will be installed over the 60 percent.” Unfortunately, there is still a general feeling in DePue that both the US EPA and Illinois EPA have not done enough to speed up the process for the rest of the site. Members of the community have noted that although the investigation of contamination was completed by the DePue Site Group in 1997, the Illinois EPA did not complete its remedial strategy plan until a full 6 years later in 2003. Thus, some citizens have disengaged from the process altogether and those who have stayed only emphasize the slow process and their distrust of the authorities involved. The most popular complaint among residents is that the regulatory agencies involved with the site have not communicated properly with each other, so little has been done to expedite the remediation process.
Furthermore, DePue is facing a situation that is common among small post-industrial towns across America: a shifting economy. When facilities at the former New Jersey Zinc/Mobil Chemical Superfund site were functioning, the citizens realized a particular level of success and residents worked at one of the site plants or at small stores in DePue. After the facilities closed down, economic opportunities in DePue diminished, compelling most citizens to look for employment elsewhere. The lack of a stable job combined with dwindling property values has resulted in economic inactivity and decreasing tax revenues. Even if the site is remediated and some parts become eligible for reuse, the mere availability of the land for development will not be the only reason for economic prosperity in the Village of DePue. The current market does not generate enough demand for any land use in DePue, and there is a clear lack of strategic economic benefits.
One of the most problematic issues for the site involves the future of Lake DePue. Due to the community’s perceived ecological, cultural, and historical significance of the lake, the residents have strong sentiments about what is going to happen to it. Some portions of the community feel quite strongly that any pollutants in the lake sediment should be removed by dredging processes. They believe this would allow the perpetuation of the annual professional boat races as well as the construction of a potential marina. While no concrete plans have been introduced regarding the marina, DePue’s location near the greater Chicago area as well as its position on the Illinois River, make this idea feasible. However, in spite of the role that the boat races play in the history and culture of the Village, it may not be possible to remove all, if any, contaminants in the lake sediments. At the moment, the potentially responsible parties have not yet conducted a Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study of the lake. As a result, the Illinois EPA is uncertain of the nature and extent of the lake’s contamination, and whether or not there can even be a full evaluation of remedial options. Whatever decision is reached about the lake will have to be addressed with a variety of interests and concerns. Without a doubt, compromises will need to be reached by all parties. If that decision leaves sediment pollutants in place and prohibits any dredging of the lake, it must be recognized that DePue will suffer a significant loss of cultural heritage that would likely warrant compensation through a Natural Resources Damage Claim.
In the little Village of DePue, its exhausted citizens and damaged morale continue to string along in the fight for their Superfund site’s cleanup. The strong impression that DePue is a great town to raise a family and has significant scenic and recreational resources are the key assets that the community needs to capitalize on. The Village needs to further develop an extensive community revival plan to appeal to business and tourists, gain income from visitors and cultivate the high quality of life that residents enjoy. The efficient collaboration of its citizens with the state and federal governments are the ultimate keys to DePue’s future.
While it may seem like a long road ahead, not all hope should be lost. Now, a visit to Palmerton is a different world than it was several years ago. The Lehigh Gap Nature Center, or the LGNC, is a non-profit environmental education and wildlife refuge center within the Kittatinny Ridge, next to the Lehigh River. It is the only environmental education center throughout the entire nation that was created on a Superfund site. The LGNC was formed by a grassroots effort, mostly from volunteer work. Dan Kunkle, the executive director of the LGNC retired early from his job as a high school science teacher in order to spur efforts to remediate and revegetate the property. In 2002, the land mirrored a harsh and uninhabitable landscape, often compared to Mars due to the barren features of the property that not even bacteria or fungi could survive on. In 2014, the LGNC was honoured with EPA’s Excellence in Site Reuse Award. The volunteers were a vital part of the restoration process, as the LGNC almost entirely relied on volunteers to get where it is today.
The LGNC offers a ray of hope for sites like DePue, where the actions of several dedicated volunteers picked up the ruins of devastated land and turned it into the complete opposite, a nature center. Now, gravel crunches under your feet as you make your way down the winding Lehigh Gap Nature Center path. You can hear birds chirping in the distance over the sea of brush and grasses that sway peacefully in the wind. A soft breeze whispers past your face as sunlight basks across your skin. A glance up the slope reveals small trees trying to take root in the green field beyond. Little houses scattered in an array make up the quaint town below and cars whiz down the road beneath. However, despite this path boiling over the cusp of another world, all you can smell ahead is the familiar aroma of fresh foliage and earth. The two realms are partitioned in an evident divide, only allowing in the few brave enough to escape from their land of concrete and glinting metal. This is the image one will find at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, a new place and a new start for an entire town. If only the people of DePue could see the Lehigh Gap Nature Center now, as a shining beacon of hope. The remediation efforts, completed with the help of the community and the EPA, represent a compelling path to success for other sites like DePue.
Jacqueline McKenna & Carina K. Nicolaisen
Jacqueline McKenna graduated Muhlenberg College with a B.S. in Environmental Science and a double minor in Public Health and French/Francophone studies. After studying Earth Sciences as a freshman in high school, Jacqueline has developed a love for science and advocating for the environment. About 8 years later, she has now made the environment a priority in her life- whether she is reading academic articles about bioremediation, debating about human impact on the environment, or fretting about climate change. Jacqueline loves running outside and spending time at the beach while she still can- before climate change causes the ocean to swallow up the shoreline!
Carina K. Nicolaisen is an aspiring environmental lawyer who graduated from Muhlenberg College in 2019. After spending years studying environmental science in school, she takes a special interest in air/water pollution and toxicity issues, specifically how they impact public wellbeing. She has long been concerned about contaminated site mitigation and remediation processes, especially Superfund sites. Besides her ultimate goal of taking down giant corporations who contribute to environmental destruction, Carina enjoys playing with puppies of all kinds and eating large quantities of french fries. Her special talent is that she can recite every line of every Harry Potter movie.