Jon Wybar stands two stories high on a conveyor overlooking his recycling business along the Delaware River waterfront in Philadelphia. Mansions dot the banks just across the channel in New Jersey.
To his right is the airplane-hangar-sized, steel shell of the main building on the Metal Bank Superfund site and acres of marsh. There, workers in the 1970s clawed open utility transformers to extract valuable copper. In the process, oil full of toxic PCBs oozed onto the ground and bled into the river.
Others might have run from a 10-acre poisoned parcel. Not Wybar.
"This was the first commercial real estate I ever bought," said the geologist-turned-recycler.
But what do you do with a Superfund site?
‘A little bit of a push’
In the Philadelphia region, 332,507 people live within a mile of one of 70 Superfund sites filled with chemically-contaminated concoctions, an Inquirer analysis shows. The data looked at sites in Philadelphia, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Bucks counties as well as Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties in South Jersey. Montgomery County boasts the most Superfund sites with 17, followed by Chester and Burlington with 11 each.
Some sites remain mired in legal issues. Others are in various stages of cleanup and monitoring. Some have been redeveloped. Environmental Protection Agency officials cite Metal Bank as an example of Superfund potential.
Scott Pruitt, the EPA's administrator, has begun rolling back Obama-era environmental rules, saying the agency will focus on a core mission that includes Superfund remediation and redevelopment. EPA officials say they want to provide "a little bit of a push" to get the sites developed, while still ensuring they are safe.
Environmentalists such as David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, are wary given the Trump administration's efforts to slash EPA funding by a third in 2019.
"It's a very high-risk game given the dangerous nature of some of these sites," Masur said.
But John Prince, acting Superfund director for EPA Region 2, which includes New Jersey, said he has "clear instructions" no changes would be made in "protecting human health and the environment."
Karen Melvin, Superfund division director for Region 3, which includes Pennsylvania, said an EPA task force looked at sites that already had drawn interest, are accessible to transportation and could prove profitable for developers. That process won't affect cleanup plans, she said.
‘Always been a dream’
After graduating from the University of Texas, Wybar, now 39, took a job with an environmental firm working at Ground Zero in New York in 2001 and started his own recycling firm a few years later. In 2008, he opened Revolution Recovery on Milnor Street in Holmesburg with seven employees. His company extracts gypsum from wallboard for fertilizer. It chips wood into alternative fuel and produces other items for reuse.
Wybar also gives space to the Recycled Artists in Residency (RAIR) program — sculptors and others who comb his debris for their work.
"The Superfund site next door has always been a dream," says Billy Dufala, 37, director of RAIR's residency program.
Wybar wants to expand both the recycling and artistic operation onto the Metal Bank site, which his company bought for $500,000 in 2016. A leg of the Delaware River Trail, a multi-use path, is to be built along the riverbank. Wybar hopes to buffer the view with a giant plastic dinosaur and an attractive space for the RAIR artists.
Options for the Metal Bank site are limited. PCBs, linked to cancer, remain underground. The ground is capped with soil that can't be disturbed to pour footings for a new building. So he will use the dilapidated 18,000-square-foot structure already on site. He has 101 workers and hopes to hire more. Even before Trump, Wybar said EPA officials have always been encouraging and workable.
Targeting 18 Superfund sites
Wybar is not alone in his unlikely real estate interests. Randall Jostes, CEO of Environmental Liability Transfer, a brownfield redevelopment company, said his firm is negotiating to buy several Superfund sites in the Philadelphia area and New Jersey but won't be specific. He said the EPA's new direction has given him confidence.
"It's only recently that we've turned our targets squarely upon Superfund sites," Jostes said.
The company buys polluted properties and assumes responsibility for property it negotiates at a discount. It works with regulators on cleanup plans. The original polluters are still on the hook to pay for remediation.
"We have acquired $1.5 billion in environmental risks from our clients," Jostes notes. "So we have become very skilled at meeting and working with regulators to reach remedial end goals."
Some Superfund sites have been tied up in litigation almost since the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act's creation in 1980. Shortened to Superfund, the program's goal was to make responsible polluters pay into a fund to be used for cleanup. But owners often declared bankruptcy. Officials spent years tracking them down then taking them to court. Taxpayers ended up paying.
Because Environmental Liability Transfer assumes the risk, it can speed the process, but still can face dealing with federal, state and local officials for a single action.
"To enter into a cleanup is very arduous," Jostes said. "What the EPA is trying to do is eliminate the overwhelming bureaucracy that is part and parcel of a Superfund site."
Jostes said streamlining bureaucracy won't change what he does to remove contaminated soil, cap areas and monitor sites.
Despite the risk, he sees plenty of opportunity.
"We are targeting 18 Superfund sites at this time nationwide," Jostes said.
New life for landfill
The 60-acre GEMS landfill in Gloucester Township was named a Superfund site in 1983. GEMS was laden with industrial waste, asbestos, solvents and heavy metals dumped there from 1969 to 1980. The federal government eventually reached a $30 million settlement with 252 separate parties. The legal process and cleanup took decades, but appears to be winding down.
Mayor David Mayer said the township signed a deal with Syncarpha Solar in 2016 to install three to 10 megawatts of solar generating capacity at GEMS. That could power more than 1,550 homes — about 6 percent of the township's 25,000 households. PJM, the regional grid operator, is studying the proposal and how much energy it can safely accept.
In return for supplying power, the township would receive lease payments from Syncarpha and operations at the landfill could get a discount on power.
"We're talking about taking something that is useless and making it into something that is usable," Mayer said. "This is the beginning of a new life for the GEMS landfill as a source of sustainable energy."