Memories and Rememdies: Ambler’s industrial past raises questions about its future

In the historical landscape of Ambler loom the “White Mountains,” a nickname for the mounds of waste left behind by an industry that was once its lifeblood.

It’s a complicated story that narrates conveniently — a small town that rose and fell with the asbestos industry has seen revitalization in recent years — but that perspective simplifies things. The memories of this era and the hazardous waste it left behind have implications for the immediate present and the future that will follow.

West Ambler 1963 (1)
Photo courtesy of BoRit Community Advisory Group / People standing in front of one of Ambler’s asbestos piles.

Asbestos manufacturing was introduced to Ambler by Richard Mattison of the Keasbey and Mattison Company. Originally, Mattison and partner Henry Keasbey made patent medicines, an industry now considered as legitimate as snake oil sales. These medicines offered no proven cure, but were often marketed as cure-alls.

Through his research for this company, Mattison stumbled upon the discovery that combining magnesium carbonate and asbestos created a material that would stick to and insulate metal steam piping. The company quickly shifted to focus on asbestos-based materials.

The Keasbey and Mattison Company settled in Ambler in the early 1880s. The choice was based on several factors, the most prominent being a rail line that connected Ambler and Quebec, which at one time contained the world’s largest asbestos mine.

By the end of the 1800s, Keasbey was no longer actively involved with K&M, and Mattison pushed forward, creating the United State’s first asbestos textile plant in Ambler. There, he would produce various asbestos-based products including roof shingles marketed as fireproof, weatherproof and “everlasting.” One of the company’s vintage advertisements also made sure to note that “they are very good looking.”

Mattison continued to build his business, as well as the town around it. He oversaw the construction of hundreds of homes and rented them to workers at fair prices. He established the Ambler Water and Ambler Electric Light, Heat & Motor companies. He improved infrastructure including maintenance for streets and sidewalks, and even implemented streetlights. He oversaw the First National Bank of Ambler. He built a bandstand and an opera house. At its height, the company employed about 2,000 people.

By the turn of the century, Mattison was named “Asbestos King,” and the small Montgomery County borough was where he laid his crown.

Courtesy of Montgomery County Historical Society (1)
Courtesy of Montgomery County Historical Society / An early advertisement for the Keasbey & Mattison Company’s roof shingles.

Before industry arrived, Ambler had fewer than 300 residents. It also didn’t have asbestos. It’s difficult to speculate what would have happened there over the 40 years of Mattison’s tenure had it never occurred.

When his reign finally did come to an end, it was 1934. Following the Great Depression, Mattison sold the company and died less than three years later at 85 years old.

The company eventually landed in the hands of another asbestos producer, which held steady for years, but went bankrupt under the weight of tens of thousands of asbestos-related lawsuits in 1987.

More than 30 years before that, asbestos began being linked to lung disease. Those who worked in the plants, it has been reported, were exposed to the airborne fibers almost nonstop.

A 2011 study done by the Pennsylvania Department of health, using cancer diagnoses from 1992 to 2008, shows that the rate of mesothelioma, the most serious of all asbestos-related diseases, is 3.1 times higher in Ambler than the rest of the state. The figure is expressedly linked to the factories.

Many who worked in the Ambler factory died of this disease and other ailments due to exposure to material that once put Ambler on the map.

Arial of K&M in 1930s courtesy of EPA
Photo courtesy of Montgomery County Historical Society / An aerial view of Keasbey & Mattison factories in the 1930s.

It’s easy to view to view asbestos as an eyesore in the history of a town now considered to be revitalized and pleasant, but that wouldn’t be accurate. When Mattison was expanding, asbestos was seen as a miracle material for building, insulation and several other uses. Had it not been found to be harmful, this might be a different story completely.

This is where memory and history diverge — they look at the same thing, but differently. Since everything that happened is now known, history can be constructed in a narrative form. Memories are more isolated and individual. Through them, people can inhabit the past and remember life as it was before anybody knew asbestos production could be harmful.

This idea was central to the Resources for Education and Action for Community Health in Ambler project, also known as REACH Ambler.

Researchers began documenting an oral history of the asbestos issue in Ambler by interviewing people who lived through it.

“It really struck us that there were a lot of ways people were narrating the history,” Britt Dahlberg of the Chemical Heritage Foundation said. “Our focus was on the different perspectives that people have and the experiences they have in the past of this town.”

The CHF partnered with the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine to publish this information and videos on the web as a historical resource for anyone who wants to access it.

In the series of videos, available on YouTube, past residents reflect on playing in the asbestos piles as children.

“When it rained, it would get slick as ice, and we would get cardboard boxes and we’d go 60, 70 feet up and we would slide down to the creek below,” Victor Romano said, smiling in one of the videos. “And I never got asbestosis or anything.”

One woman, Carol DiPietro, discussed her mother working as a secretary in the factory with seemingly no concerns about the conditions there at the time. As a kid, she even took a box of asbestos products to school for show and tell.

“For long-term residents, there were some great things that were models for things they’d like to re-cultivate,” Dahlberg said. “That nostalgia and remembering is a positive effort to get people to understand some of their visions that are based on what worked in the past.”

This leads to an important question, one that Ambler residents still struggle with: Now that we know what we know, what happens next?

Reservoir courtesy of CAG
Photo courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency / A modern image taken of the reservoir at the BoRit site.

On a rainy night in December, residents and EPA representatives held a meeting of the Community Advisory Group to discuss this exact issue. “Remediation” is a word mentioned often, meaning simply to remedy environmental damage.

Years before, the Ambler Piles, once known as the “White Mountains,” were erased from the EPA’s National Priorities List as a Superfund Site. Basically, this means a site where hazardous waste exists to the point where federal government frees up money from a “superfund” to help with the cleanup.

In 1996, the EPA met cleanup goals and now regularly monitors the land there, but another site is still going through the process. Located in West Ambler, this site was used as a dumping ground for asbestos-containing material into the 1960s. It’s now known as the BoRit Site.

BoRit was declared a Superfund site in 2009, and initial cleanup is nearing an end. The 32-acre site is made up of three parcels: a waterfowl preserve in Upper Dublin Township, a closed, 11-acre park owned by Whitpain Township and an asbestos pile.

During the initial cleanup, the contaminated areas were covered in a geotextile, then with two feet of soil, and vegetation was planted to limit movement. This ongoing practice is called capping. Waterways have also been armored and covered.

“We covered up all the asbestos-containing soil,” said Jill Lowe, the EPA remedial project manager for the site, suggesting that finishing the capping work is being considered as the final remedy.

Excavating and moving the asbestos, she said, could put asbestos in the air, which brings an increased risk in the short term.

At the meeting, the conversations go in circles. It’s clear everyone is familiar with one another, and it’s even clearer that there’s disagreement on the path that should be taken.

Some want the asbestos moved out of town, some think capping will be sufficient. Overall, it seems everyone is worried for the well-being of the town and the people living there, but uncertainty lingers.

Officials at Whitpain Township want to reopen the park when the EPA work is completed. They even have plans ready, with fields for sports and the possibility of putting a clubhouse there. Residents are concerned about kids playing nearby hazardous waste and whether the capping method will keep contamination from reaching the surface in the long term.

People want the Wissahickon Waterfowl Preserve and its reservoir to be safe for wildlife, but there’s concern about the water being contaminated by asbestos. The EPA representatives promise to keep monitoring it.

The EPA will propose a plan for final cleanup in January or February, representatives said. The current threat to people nearby has been determined to be minimal. According to the testing, people in the vicinity are not being exposed to asbestos fibers from the site that pose any significant health risk. The EPA will weigh this and consider whether a removal action is necessary.

They want to do what is best for everyone, and time will tell if they can.