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In Eastwick, a landfill's legacy stirs activism

Living amid a Superfund site turns Philly rowhouse residents into environmentalists.

Eastwick has dealt with pollution for five decades and now longtime residents (from left) Earl Wilson, Elizabeth Reid, Leonard Stewart and Terry Williams are fighting back.
Eastwick has dealt with pollution for five decades and now longtime residents (from left) Earl Wilson, Elizabeth Reid, Leonard Stewart and Terry Williams are fighting back.Read moreChandra Jones / Staff photographer

BETTY REID still remembers the excitement from the late 1970s as she and her husband were moving into a newly built brick-and-siding rowhouse on a leafy, almost suburban street at the edge of Eastwick - the city's southwestern fringe, in the shadow of jumbo jets landing at nearby Philadelphia International Airport.

The now-81-year-old retiree recalls a brochure for the new Eastwick community from the developer Korman Homes that showed kids playing and sliding down the steep hill in back of the development, pushing "how much fun it would be for the children."

But it wasn't long after moving in that the Reids weren't able to open their window on a warm night because of the noxious odor of burning garbage - and they realized the fumes were coming from that hillside in the cheerful brochure, a disposal site that the locals called Heller's Dump but was officially known as the Clearview Landfill. (Today the southwest section of Eastwick encompassing the landfill is called simply Clearview.)

By 1988, Reid's husband, a SEPTA worker, was dead of brain cancer at 53, and she said several neighbors also were battling cancer or other health ailments. When she visited the doctor and had her lungs examined, she said it was hard to convince him that she'd never smoked cigarettes.

Over three long decades, Reid and her neighbors have watched the arc of environmental justice bend at an infinitesimal rate. Even though Reid and about 75 neighbors obtained an out-of-court settlement from Korman in the mid-1980s over the landfill, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency initially declared that PCBs and other toxic wastes at the site weren't a health hazard, then shifted gears in 2000 and declared the landfill and some adjacent polluted property a federal Superfund site. Even then, no cleanup took place.

But in the last few years, a new spirit of activism has overtaken Eastwick. Three years ago, Reid and some of her neighbors successfully blocked a proposed new residential development, then set their sights on the lingering pollution problems. Their new group - the Eastwick Friends and Neighbors Coalition - didn't fit the well-worn stereotypes of granola-fed environmental activists. Many members were retired, many are African-American, and they now found themselves on the cutting edge of a national movement seeking "environmental justice" for low-income, urban communities that have been dumped on for years.

This October, the EPA finally unveiled a plan for curbing pollution from the Clearview Landfill that will involve capping the landfill with a layer of soil and planting trees and other vegetation - something known as an evapotranspiration (or ET) cover - and building trenches to capture toxins now leaching into the groundwater. However, officials conceded that the actual remedial work is still at least a couple of years away - and that's only if and when Washington coughs up the roughly $24 million to fully fund the ambitious project.

Also, the activists are still pushing for more follow-up on a 2012 Pennsylvania Department of Health study of the broader Eastwick neighborhood that did not find a so-called "cancer cluster" but did note that the incidence of liver cancer over a 17-year period - while small in number - was roughly double the state average. The state findings didn't dispel the health fears of Eastwick over living next to a Superfund site, and the activists are working with a top environmental-disease sleuth at the University of Pennsylvania to look deeper.

What do the environmentalists of Eastwick want?

Earl Wilson, who has lived in Eastwick all his life - he frolicked atop the landfill site and swam in the polluted waters as a kid - dreams of a day when the toxic mound between the homes and the Darby Creek is so clean that the next generation can again play there . . . but safely.

"We don't want it to just be a mound," said Wilson, who has made YouTube videos touring the brushy hillside, narrating beneath a baseball cap. "It should be something the community can use - with bike trails . . . or make some benches, a park. Not to have it just sit there. Make it usable."

In Wilson's tone, you can imagine echoes of the optimism that remade the neighborhood once before, prior to the 1950s, when it was a mix of lower-income housing, small farms and marshland, before the liberal reform government of then-Mayor Richardson Dilworth targeted the area for "blight removal," which accelerated after a major flood in 1955. Partnering with the developer now known as Korman, some leafy sections of Eastwick looked more like a Sunbelt apartment complex than traditional stickball Philly rowhouses.

But despite the renewal push, Eastwick remained threaded with environmental dangers old and new. The Lower Darby Creek Superfund site that was declared by the EPA in 2001 includes not just the Clearview Landfill - which accepted wastes from Philadelphia and from industrial clients from the 1950s into the 1970s - but also the nearby Folcroft Landfill, on land now belonging to the John Heinz Wildlife Refuge in Delaware County. In addition, Eastwick is adjacent to the airport and the smoggy traffic jams of I-95, and not far from the city's refineries and other industrial sites. The low-lying neighborhood also remains prone to flooding - it was inundated after Hurricane Floyd in 1999 - which has increased residents' fears that rising waters might be mixed with the landfill toxins.

Today, there is an uneasy kind of truce between the townhouses along Mars Place, on the western fringe of Eastwick, and the Superfund property that backs up to their second-story decks and barbecue grills. A fence that once marked the boundary of the landfill property came down years ago - and only recently, residents say, did the EPA increase the number of No Trespassing signs that now ring the tract.

Terry Williams, the president of the Eastwick Friends group, whose initial bout with activism involved curbing youth-gang activity in West Philadelphia in the 1970s, pointed with disgust to a spot just behind the rowhouses where someone recently dumped a small wad of bottles and other debris. "This is just another part of this culture of dumping in Eastwick," he said.

Although no one was outside on that unseasonably warm November afternoon, activists say it's not uncommon for kids in the neighborhood to play basketball or just hang out at the Eastwick Park Playground that abuts the former landfill - even when EPA crews were boring underneath it a few years ago to test for toxins. Experts say the greatest health concern in Eastwick is breathing landfill gases, especially because residents don't draw their tap water from their potentially polluted groundwater.

Josh Barber, the remedial project manager for the EPA in Philadelphia, said the roughly 13-year lag between the Superfund designation and the clean-up plan was partly because it took six years for the agency just to negotiate access to the property, then considerably longer to conduct testing. Barber said there's no short-term health hazard and EPA believes the long-term risk is minimal, even though he acknowledged that the cancer risk from the pollution under the playground is slightly higher than the baseline standard of one extra case per 10,000 people.

The 2012 study by the Pennsylvania Department of Health - which studied cancer reports filed on patients living in the 19153 ZIP code from 1992 through 2008 - found that generally cancer rates in Eastwick are similar to those in the rest of Philadelphia.

But Dr. Gene Weinberg, director of the division of community epidemiology in the department's Bureau of Epidemiology, acknowledged that Eastwick's rate of liver cancer is roughly double the state average. But he noted that the raw number was small - 23 cases over the 17 years - and officials did not determine a need for further study.

"If we had unlimited resources, we might be doing more," Weinberg acknowledged.

Dr. Marilyn Howarth, director of community outreach and engagement at Penn's Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology, has been meeting with Eastwick residents to look at ways to conduct more intensive environmental health testing. "Right now, it is an area of the city among the highest asthma rates," Howarth noted, although she agreed that the landfill is just one of many nearby sources of air pollution.

But it's not just Howarth who sees such a busy intersection of environmental issues in one Philadelphia neighborhood. In September, the Eastwick Friends chartered a large bus to travel to New York City for the massive People's Climate March, hoping that neighbors would see a link between the flooding problems of Darby Creek and the rising tides of global warming.

Every seat was filled.