A Timeline of Lead in Palmerton
By Rachel Siegel
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” In this quote by Aldo Leopold, the relationship between humans and their environment ignites the idea of what exactly comprises a biotic community. Citizens of a community have certain expectations: clean water, clean air, and clean soil – all necessary environmental components that are major health determinants of population health. What happens when these factors are manipulated, contaminated, and spoiled? Who oversees these damages, and who is in charge of remediating this damage?
The New Jersey Zinc Company establishes a manufacturing plant in Palmerton, PA and created a community heavily reliant on zinc smelting for their economic and personal welfare. The New Jersey Zinc Company was one of the largest producers of zinc in the United States, and included operations used to make brass and other heavy metals. This operation was located alongside a mountain and adjacent to the Lehigh Valley River, creating a prominent air and water quality threat to both Palmerton citizens and the land itself, although not immediately apparent.
Zinc operations come to a halt. After decades of active operations the New Jersey Zinc Company deposited nearly 33 million tons of slag and heavy metals which inevitably would affect the citizens of Palmerton, 850 of whom live within one mile of the site. In addition, the disastrous leakage of heavy metals, such as zinc, cadmium, and lead, have destroyed vegetation and left acres of land barren and open to rainfall which could potentially carry these toxic byproducts into the river below. The toxic footprint left by the New Jersey Zinc Company has had a lasting effect.
On September 8, 1993, the EPA officially declared the New Jersey Zinc Company site a superfund site and began processes to facilitate cleanup efforts. CBS Corporation, the partially responsible party for the long term pollution released from the New Jersey Zinc Company, was responsible for the majority of the cleanup operation that was enforced by the EPA.
In 2003, the Lehigh Gap Nature Center (LGNC) which owned land that fell under the Superfund designation began testing ways to grow native grasses on the contaminated site. A variety of goals for the site were put into place which included the following; stop erosion, plant native species, and lock toxic metals underground. LGNC took on this initiative as a way to conserve, preserve, and restore the land once contaminated by the industrial zinc smelting operation.
The EPA requested air level testing in Palmerton--the results were above the national standard. The current lead contamination is coming from a different source than before; the American Zinc Recycling Facility, another zinc-centered facility located in Palmerton where one of the largest operations of zinc smelting first took place nearly a century ago. It is located right next to the cinder bank where toxic byproduct from the New Jersey Zinc Company was deposited.
The Federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), who monitored the air near the plant as requested by the EPA, reported in July 2018, that there was a public health hazard for young children and pregnant women within three miles of the recycling facility.
Lead has detrimental toxic effects that have the potential to negatively impact human health. “Only a small amount of lead from dust and soil that gets on your skin will pass through and enter the bloodstream," explained Nate Wardle, the press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Health Once lead enters the body, "It travels to your organs, such as the liver, kidneys, lungs, brain, etc. and then eventually the bones and teeth. Lead can stay in your bones for decades, but it can also re-enter your blood and organs during certain circumstances, such as pregnancy, breast feeding, after a bone is broken and as you age.”
As of September 2018, high levels of lead have been identified in both the air and soil of Palmerton,
In response to this, the Pennsylvania Department of Health started to offer free lead tests in February 2019 at a local junior high school. Local government officials encouraged residents to take advantage of this free test, regardless if they thought they were exposed or not. This was an action of intervention.
In March 2019, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection announced that high levels of lead were found in soil samples from a park in Palmerton and a day care, posing a significant threat to children in the area.
In April of 2019, the problem still wasn’t fixed. Elevated levels of lead were still found in the blood of Palmerton residents.
Since the early 20th century, Palmerton has been bombarded with toxic substances that have threatened the health of residents. Why does this pattern keep happening and what will it take for Palmerton residents to get clean water and soil? An extensive lead problem could cost local, state, and national governments billions of dollars combined – which begs the question if the lack of desire to fix this problem is due to the fact that money is valued over population health and the conservation of the land itself.
The capitalistic angle in which the land is viewed will continue to perpetuate this problem at the expense of our Earth. Perhaps, the Lehigh Gap Nature Center is trying to minimize this issue through their land remediation efforts and this is the approach that should be taken to preserve the land as it is and prevent further damage. Humans see land as property that can be fixed; yet the Palmerton lead epidemic challenges that and will not be resolved until human perception of the land is altered. As Aldo Leopold said, “conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
Rachel Siegel graduated from Muhlenberg College in 2019 with a Bachelor of Arts in Public Health. After taking a course titled “Environmental Health,” she became increasingly interested in a population’s relationship to their surrounding environment, the hazards they encounter, and how that impacts the overall well-being of that population. This made her think about different strategies to communicate such risks to the public which ignited her interest in environmental journalism as a whole. During her down time, you can find Rachel reminiscing about her semester abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark or talking about the love of her life, her dog, Leo.