Today, on Monday December 7th, a military-grade DJI Phantom drone will fly over the small, Pennsylvania town of Ambler, in an attempt to assess its safety for human beings and the environment. No, the town is not a warzone or military target, but it did once hold over 1.5 million cubic yards of asbestos waste. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been trying to clean this waste site up since the late 80s.
Flying a drone over the site is the newest attempt by the EPA in that cleanup effort. The drone is owned by the Army Corps of Engineers and will be used to take pictures of all 25 acres of the Ambler Asbestos Piles Superfund Site and determine if the now-over-25 year-old effort to cleanse it is still keeping people safe from asbestos particles.
Most recent tests have shown that the Ambler Asbestos Piles, as it is known, still present an active threat to people living in and around it. With a number of waterways coursing through the area, widespread asbestos contamination is also a concern as loose particles could, if unmonitored, end up in the drinking water.
This operation will represent the first time the EPA has used drones to perform an assessment of a contaminated area. The drones make it easier to view the entire site in a single glance and they provide access to areas that are difficult to reach by walking.
What this also says is something about the lethality of asbestos – that government workers are bringing in drones owned by the U.S. Army to ensure that no people risk contamination.
A Dark Legacy & Tough Plight of an Old Pennsylvania Mining Town
Ambler, Pennsylvania wasn’t always such a hazardous place. In 1881, the Keasbey and Mattison Company put Ambler, Pennsylvania on the map with asbestos. In a classic American story, Ambler started out as a tiny town of 250 residents until Keasbey and Mattison swooped in on a train and brought hundreds of more workers and a slew of houses, stores, and factory buildings. By the beginning of the 19th century, Ambler was known as the "asbestos capital of the world."
While the company changed hands over time, the central business of using asbestos in manufacturing remained the same for nearly a hundred years. Unfortunately, that business caused residents of Ambler to become 3 times as likely to develop mesothelioma as the rest of Pennsylvania. Due to mesothelioma, Ambler also has a mortality rate almost double that of the national average.
In 1980, The EPA finally made Ambler a Superfund site and eventually made it a national priority for renovation. By 1993 the EPA had made significant efforts to clean up the enormous quantities of asbestos waste. However, recent assessments have shown that the site still contains upwards of 60% asbestos fibers. Similarly, mesothelioma statistics have not gone down in the region.
Asbestos Are a Worldwide Threat
Not only does the present state of Ambler reveal the need for the EPA to be stronger in its efforts to prevent and clean up asbestos waste, but it also emphasizes the inherent danger of building entire towns around toxic substances and the industries that use them.
Another example, and a kind of sister city to Ambler, is the town of Asbest in Russia. Asbest is a dark glimpse into what the U.S. could look like if its asbestos regulations get anymore relaxed. One of Asbest’s residents, Boris Balobanov told the New York Times, "Every normal person is trying to get out of here. People who value their lives leave." Another resident, Tamara A. Biserova remarked, "When I work in the garden, I notice asbestos dust on my raspberries."
Mesothelioma is rampant in the area and most residents have either a cough or a skin condition from constant exposure to the fiber. No tests or surveys have been conducted to measure how frequently disease occurs, but the plight of both the town and the people speaks for itself.
Places like Ambler, PA and Asbest in Russia are living relics of a dangerous past. A time when industrial tycoons built giant, wide-open asbestos mines and hired thousands of workers to work with, in, and around it all day. Only now do we see the full effects of those decisions. Not only does asbestos cause widespread cancer and illness, it drives away any future residents.
The sad truth is that most asbestos towns are currently struggling to hold onto their populations, their money and their quality of life. Places like Ambler take decades of work and millions of dollars to decontaminate; perhaps it would be best if businesses didn’t “dirty” these areas in the first place.