THROOP, Pa. — Environmental change--from polluted streams to congested highways and overdeveloped land--is affecting the quality of life across the nation. Such change is gradual and often goes unnoticed while it happens.
To measure how various areas have been affected over the decades, The Times dispatched reporters to the places where they grew up. This occasional series of articles examines how our hometown environments have been altered--for better or for worse.
"Hard times, hard coal." The two described life in this northeastern Pennsylvania town when I was growing up in the 1930s.
Now, the coal is gone and the environmental devastation wrought by mining is partly repaired, but new ecological dangers--lead poisoning and a deluge of garbage from distant cities--again challenge the quality of life here.
Both of my grandfathers were immigrant miners. My father went to the mines when he was 8 years old, barely tall enough to walk through snow drifts. All three suffered black lung disease from the dust, which was what you got if you survived cave-ins, floods, fires, explosions and the various "damps" (gases) that cut life even shorter.
But even those who never went into the mines lived with the hazards.
Gigantic "breakers," structures 15 stories high, rose like medieval castles, desolate and black on the landscape. They washed tiny particles from coal, creating a slurry that piled up in ever-rising hills, called culm dumps. When they reached almost the height of pyramids, the dumps caught fire spontaneously under the accumulating pressure and were unextinguishable. Acid fumes from the fires spread over the area, blistering house paint and searing throats around the clock, rain or shine.
Sulfurous yellow water was pumped from the mines into the Lackawanna River that drained the valley. So was raw sewage. As kids we were convinced that your arm or leg would wither and fall off if touched by that fetid water. "Like lepers in the Bible," the older ones warned us.
Now the mines are dead and their detritus is being cleaned up. Red ash from the burnt-out culm dumps has been leveled into Little League baseball fields or turned into cinder blocks. Carp and even some trout have returned to the river.
Small, light industries have moved into an industrial park at the edge of town, and the steady population decline of half a century has been halted at about 4,000 from its peak of almost twice that size during the 1920s.
But along the way, new environmental hazards arrived, first in the form of a smelter that spewed poisonous lead over a section of the town for more than a decade before the danger was recognized, then by the arrival of garbage from distant cities.
Scores of toddlers and adults show crippling levels of lead in their blood. Homes were evacuated and acres of topsoil were scraped away, sometimes to a depth of two yards, to contain the pollution. But acres of crushed batteries, many leaking acid, remain a forbidding wasteland within the town.
Liquid toxic wastes from out-of-state factories were trucked to this region and pumped illegally into deserted mine shafts. The poisonous chemicals eventually seeped from the mines into creeks and rivers when rain raised the ground water level.
And huge dumps of garbage are replacing the old dumps of coal. Millions of tons of trash from distant Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey were hauled here by dump owners at highly lucrative rates, and without adequate warning to residents.
"We call the Throop dump the 'magic mountain' because it grew so fast," said Fred Soltes, an activist fighting the deluge of foreign trash.
An Early Warning
"This area, northeast Pennsylvania, is becoming the garbage dump of the eastern United States," complained Mike Cowley, a lawyer in nearby Dunmore, which shares the Throop dump. In fact, Throop's experience may serve as an early warning of big cities dumping their garbage in small towns as major population centers run out of landfill.
A 1984 study for the California Waste Management Board concluded that best sites for garbage disposal facilities were in small, low income communities like these in Lackawanna Valley.
The implication is that poor, small-town folk are less inclined and can't afford to protest. "The big cities are making us a sacrificial area," Cowley said. "Just when the place was getting itself cleaned up."
Eastern Pennsylvania contained the richest deposit of anthracite in the world. This hard coal, as distinct from bituminous, or soft coal, contains more energy per pound and leaves the least ash of any solid fuels. It was the most efficient fuel for making iron and steel, including steel for rails for the growing network of railroads in the 19th Century. Pennsylvania coal largely fueled the U.S. Industrial Revolution.