Asbestos in Ambler
Ambler is a borough of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania located approximately 20 miles north of Philadelphia. Originally founded as the village of Wissahickon, Ambler grew to become a self-sufficient asbestos company town providing plentiful conveniences and opportunities for workers and their families. After the heightened awareness of the hazards of asbestos exposure and the decline of the asbestos industry in the twentieth century, Ambler has sought to retain its community’s heritage while confronting the dangers of lingering industrial asbestos wastes. In order to provide a more comprehensive picture of Ambler’s story, we have produced a timeline of key events from Ambler’s inception to the modern day.
1716: William and George Hamer are the first landholders to settle the Ambler area after purchasing a 408-acre tract from William Penn including most of what is now Ambler Borough. Further settlement produces the beginning of Wissahickon Village. Various milling operations, especially grain milling, became the primary industry of the settlement.1
1730: The first road built in Wissahickon, now known as Mt. Pleasant Avenue, is confirmed for construction.1
1855: Wissahickon Station becomes a stop on the North Pennsylvania Railroad Line. The railroad allows Wissahickon grain farmers to send their crops directly to cities like Philadelphia where large food distributors provided their own grinding services. As farmers turn to the greater market range and efficiency provided by the railroad, the Wissahickon milling industry loses business and the town economy suffers significantly.2
1856: The Great Train Wreck of 1856 occurs between the Camp Hill and Wissahickon stations. A train from Wissahickon containing over 1,000 passengers bound for a country picnic at Fort Washington organized by the Saint Michael Catholic Church collides with an oncoming engine on the same track, killing around 60 and injuring hundreds. Mary Johnson Ambler, a Quaker resident of the Wissahickon village who lived near the Station, heroically travels several miles to Fort Washington with medical supplies to provide first aid to those hurt in the crash. Upon arriving, Mary takes charge and organizes the response operation. She even converts her home into a temporary hospital and cares for many of the injured passengers.1
1868: Following the death of Mary Johnson Ambler, the North Pennsylvania Train Station renames the Wissahickon Station to the Ambler Station in honor of her service.1
1873: Henry G. Keasbey and his business partner Dr. Richard V. Mattison found Keasbey & Mattison, a small pharmaceutical company in Philadelphia that manufactures headache medicine.2
1882: After Mattison visits Wissahickon and finds ample sources of spring water, limestone for medicinal ingredients and building construction, and the available access to the railroad from Ambler station, Keasbey and Mattison move their company to the village. The small community is accepting, as they feel this new industry will vitalize the town, bring other companies to the area, and provide new jobs. During experimentation, Mattison discovers that mixing magnesium carbonate and asbestos produces an insulating fabric that significantly cuts fuel costs when wrapped around steam pipes in homes and buildings. Mattison then reorients his research to discover all possible applications for asbestos. Within five years of operating in Ambler, the company changes its focus to the manufacturing of asbestos-related products. Keasbey & Mattison becomes the major local employer of Ambler.2
1888: The Wissahickon village is renamed to the borough of Ambler, as it is known today, in honor of Mary Johnson Ambler.1
1890: Mattison builds Ambler Borough’s first library and opera house.1
1896: Mattison builds the nation’s first asbestos textile plant in Ambler.2
1897: The Ambler Boiler House is built.2
1927: Keasbey withdraws from his partnership with Mattison.1
1930: Keasbey & Mattison begins dumping asbestos-containing wastes on the Ambler pile site.3
1931: After the Great Depression hits, Mattison loses his financial capability to operate the Ambler factory. He is removed from his position as Keasbey & Mattison president by his creditors.2
1934: Keasbey and Mattison is sold to the British asbestos manufacturer Turner and Newall.2
1970s: The hazards posed by the asbestos piles in South and West Ambler are realized by Ambler residents and the EPA. The passage of major pieces of federal legislation, including environmental and occupational safety health legislation, begin to place severe pressure on the Ambler asbestos industry4:
— 1974: Ambler's White Mountains contain 1.5 million cubic yards of asbestos waster spanning over 25 acres of land. One of the Ambler asbestos plants shuts down.2
— 1975: The EPA outlaws solid asbestos products susceptible to crumbling.2
— 1978: Nicolet Industries begins to be charged with cases of bodily injury involving plant workers.2
1986: The White Mountains, renamed the Ambler Asbestos Piles, are placed on the National Priorities List of hazardous waste sites eligible for long-term remediation supported by the federal Superfund program. The asbestos-manufacturing companies pay for removal and capping of contaminated soil, fencing and signage around the site, and erosion and sedimentation control. A dense stand of trees eventually grows on the site.2
1987: Nicolet files for bankruptcy and stops manufacturing asbestos products after it has been named as a defendant in over 50,000 cases of bodily injury involving asbestos.4
1993: The EPA completes its remediation of the Ambler Asbestos Piles site.1
1996: The Ambler Asbestos Piles site is removed from the national Superfund list.1
2005: Kane Core, the owner of a six-acre plot on the BoRit site,5 proposes to built a 17-story high-rise apartment on the location. The proposal is opposed by a local contingency spearheaded by the Citizens for a Better Ambler Group, which cites concerns about the high-rise's potential to cause traffic congestion and public service strain as well as disturb remaining asbestos waste material. Kane Core abandons the project by the end of the year, but the community's newfound focus on the remaining dangers of asbestos at the BoRit site create a demand for an EPA assessment.2
2009: the BoRit site is added to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Priorities List as a Superfund site.5
2011: The abandoned Boiler House undergoes remediation and a $16 million renovation. The building is now powered by geothermal energy, roofed with a reflective solar panel system, and provides 97% of its space to various companies and firms for business.2
2014: The EPA begins work on the BoRit site reservoir, pumping and treating the water to meet state regulations for discharge water. The water is piped into Wissahickon Creek and the reservoir is cleaned before it is refilled.6
2015: The initial cleanup phase (removal phase) of the BoRit superfund site is completed.2
2016: The removal action plan for the BoRit site, including the reservoir, is expected to be completed. The Wissahickon Waterfowl Preserve pond will be reopened as a habitat for migratory birds and aquatic animals.7
1. Montgomery County Planning Commission. Ambler Borough Open Space Plan. Report. 2006. Accessed March 10, 2016. http://www.montcopa.org/DocumentCenter/View/2078.
2. Reiny, Samson. "Living in the Town Asbestos Built." Chemical Heritage Foundation, Distillations Magazine, Winter 2015. Accessed March 10, 2016. http://www.chemheritage.org/discover/media/distillations-magazine/01-2-06-living-in-the-town-asbestos-built.aspx.
4. "Nicolet (Keasbey & Mattison) - History, Superfund Site & Asbestos Litigation." Asbestos.com. Accessed March 10, 2016. http://www.asbestos.com/companies/nicolet-keasbey-mattison.php.
5. "EPA Superfund Program: BORIT ASBESTOS, AMBLER, PA." United States Environmental Protection Agency Website. Accessed March 10, 2016. https://cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/cursites/csitinfo.cfm?id=0301842.
6. "Site Information for BORIT ASBESTOS." United States Environmental Protection Agency Website. Accessed March 10, 2016. https://cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/cursites/dsp_ssppSiteData1.cfm?id=0301842#Why.
7. The BoRit Asbestos Superfund Site: A Story of Progress and Promise. Report. January 2016. Accessed March 10, 2016. http://www.boritcag.org/pdf/BoRit Insert Final .pdf.