By Sara Martino
Gloucester City News
(Editor’s note: This is the second of two articles on the EPA’s continuing Superfund Clean-Up in Gloucester City.)
Waste products generated from the Welsbach factory, located just south of the area that now includes the Walt Whitman Bridge in Gloucester City, were deposited into the wetland areas during the company’s active operation from 1890 to the 1940s.
Drums containing the thorium and other by-products were found years later at the factory site when the cleanup began.
In the year 1917, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Welsbach factory was situated on 12 acres, employed 2,600 people, mostly women, and manufactured 250,000 gas mantles per day.
A “mantle” is a roughly pear shape artificial silk or fabric bag impregnated with rare earth metallic salts and were used in gas lamps to give off a brighter glow.
The female workers sewed the mantle wicks for the lamps and were exposed to the elements of thorium and radium daily, said Rick Robinson, EPA Region 2 Project Manager for the Welsbach/General Gas Mantle Superfund site in Gloucester City and Camden.
Thorium can enter the body through inhalation, ingestion and dermal contact, Robinson said.
Statistics are not available concerning the effects of the work done by the women on a daily basis or if any cancer or deaths were suffered due to the exposure.
The invention of the electric light eventually replaced gas lighting and the company went out of business in 1940, he said.
Thorium, a radioactive element, was used to make the mantles glow brighter. Once deposited in the ground, as the by-products were, radon gas occurred as part of the natural process of radioactive decay.
According to the EPA, the contamination is not exactly on the surface in the area of the ball fields at Johnson Boulevard.
Once identified, excavation was begun to a depth of 22 feet and huge dump trucks carry tons of dirt daily to a stockpile area.
The next step is then to ship out the dirt out by rail to Idaho or Utah for safe disposal, Robinson said.
In 1996, the site was placed on the Superfund List. In 1997, EPA began a remedial investigation and feasibility study to determine the extent of the radiological contamination and to evaluate alternatives to clean up the site.
In November of 2001, according to EPA’s report, funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was allocated to start the clean-up at the large recreational area in Gloucester City.
To date, EPA has investigated almost 950 properties out of the 1000 properties it plans on studying in the Gloucester and Camden areas.
Tests that will be conducted by the EPA will include: Surface exposure rate scans to identify any areas of concern; Radon sampling to determine if any site related waste could be on the property; and Soil sampling to measure the amount of radium and thorium present.
Once a property has been identified for clean-up, numerous steps will be taken to make sure the surrounding community is not exposed to radioactive material as a result of the cleanup, Robinson said.
These steps include dust control, containing all rainwater and groundwater and constant monitoring of the clean- up area.
To date, EPA has completed cleanup activities at the Gloucester City Swim Club, residential properties along Essex Street, properties between Highland Boulevard and Klemm Avenue and residential properties along Temple Avenue adjacent to Newton Creek and a portion of Sixth Street between Division and High Street that is the future site of a middle school.
According to EPA estimates, the cleanup and restoration of the South Fields will take about 24 months to complete.
It also estimated that the South Fields should be open for the 2014 baseball/softball season.