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Fishtown residents, city halt smelter demolition until safeguards in place

The City of Philadelphia stopped the demolition of a former lead smelter in Fishtown after residents complained they weren't given notice and that controls for airborne toxins didn't take place.

A former lead smelter in Fishtown, at Gordon and Gaul Streets, is being torn down and replaced with eight townhouses.
A former lead smelter in Fishtown, at Gordon and Gaul Streets, is being torn down and replaced with eight townhouses.Read moreJessica Griffin / Staff Photographer

It was around 8:30 Friday morning when heavy machinery ripped into the roof of a former lead smelter in Fishtown, sending plumes of dust through a tightly packed neighborhood of rowhouses.

Many neighbors were incensed. They knew that the city required that those living near the demolition at Gordon and Gaul Streets be notified 10 days before the demolition, that the structure be dismantled by hand tools, and that the debris be wet down to protect residents from dust that could contain hazardous materials, including lead.

None of that happened.

"It was horrible," said Betty Ann Decky, who has lived across the street from the site since 1971. "They never notified any of the neighbors. … No water was sprayed."

A day-care center sits directly across the street. "And on this block alone, there's 10 children," she said. "That's my biggest worry. They could be exposed to lead, and it's very harmful for children."

Many residents of Fishtown, Kensington, and Port Richmond became more attuned to the dangers of lead-tainted soil after an  Inquirer and Daily News investigation found hazardous levels of lead contamination in more than 80 locations in those neighborhoods, including parks, playgrounds, and yards.

Residents formed a Facebook group, Get the Lead Out, to educate others about the issue. They complain to the city Department of Public Health's Air Management Services when they spot airborne dust from demolition and construction sites.

On Friday morning, Fishtown resident Rachel Kaminski alerted Licenses and Inspections Commissioner David Perri about the faulty demolition, and by noon his department had issued a 10-day stop-work order.

That evening, Danny McCarthy, who lives at  Belgrade and Gordon Streets, just a few feet from the former Car-Mor Metal Co. smelter, sat on his front steps with his three children, ages 3, 4 and 8. He looked across at the partly collapsed structure and pointed out the fresh coating of dust on his car.

"We are all for building it. Just do it right," McCarthy said. "If they are building houses, that's one thing, but if the ground is contaminated, that's another. They need to clean it up."

At a community zoning meeting in February, the developer, Gaul Street Partners, told Fishtown residents of its plans for the former smelter site: Eight single-family homes, with a listing price of about $560,000 each. Ori Feibush of OCF Realty is the real estate broker.

When one of the residents at the meeting asked about potential lead contamination, the audience was told that any environmental hazards would be remediated before construction.

Marty Schortye, who attended the meeting, said: "The building had sat forever, and then, boom, they put the fence up, and they just showed up and started doing their thing. Nobody said anything. They just rushed in."

Feibush is something of a lightning rod in the city's Point Breeze neighborhood, where some residents credit him for helping to rid the area of blight, while others say his brand of gentrification is pricing out minority residents.

Ian Wilson, president of the Fishtown Neighbors Association, invited Feibush to join the heated discussion about the project on the Get the Lead Out Facebook group. Feibush, who says he has no ownership in the Gaul Street project, weighed in: "I'm embarrassed and frustrated that you didn't have proper notice of the demolition and do realize that starts us all off on the wrong foot."

The back-and-forth between Facebook members and Feibush quickly escalated. “There has been little to no transparency in terms of development in this neighborhood and I find it absurd that neighbors are having to continually advocate for established rules to be followed,”  resident Allison Dean wrote.

On Tuesday afternoon, Jim Robertson, vice president of Gaul Street Partners, went door to door to apologize to residents and assure them the work would be done safely. Robertson also works for OCF as an agent.

The demolition permit, issued by the city in July, says the structure must be "demolished by hand and handheld tools only. Use of mechanical equipment limited to the removal of debris and below-grade demolition."

Gaul Street Partners contracted with Mr. Clean Demo. James DiBartolo, owner of Mr. Clean Demo, said Robertson was supposed to give neighbors 10 days' notice of the demolition. Robertson said DiBartolo was responsible for notifying neighbors.

DiBartolo said he placed demolition notices in neighbors' mailboxes Monday. Mr. Clean Demo cannot resume the teardown until Oct. 5.

"We will take the walls down brick by brick with sledgehammers," he said, a job expected to take at least 15 days.

Robertson said he planned to hire an environmental firm to research the site's history and determine whether lead or any other contaminants might lurk in the ground after demolition.

"We'll evaluate what we have underground and take steps to remediate," he said.

Since June 18, Air Management Services has handled more than 50 complaints about construction in the river wards. Health officials have promised residents that complaints will be investigated within an hour.

Also since June 18, the Department of Licenses and Inspections has inspected 132 sites in the river wards and issued seven stop-work orders for not adhering to dust-control measures.

Residents who want to take measures into their own hands can have their soil tested for lead free and learn if their children have elevated lead levels in their blood. On Saturday, a Lead Exposure Resource Fair and testing event will provide free testing between 1 and 4 p.m. at Beacon Church, 2364 E. Cumberland St.