Palmerton residents who have long feared whether soils in and around the borough are still contaminated with elevated levels of metals can presumably breathe a huge sigh of relief.
Based on the results of a recent study conducted by Lehigh University, metals concentrations are currently below the state Environmental Protection Agency residential standards in the borough and surrounding communities.
Dork Sahagian, director of environmental initiative professor, Earth and Environmental Sciences at Lehigh University, shared the results of the study with borough council on Thursday.
Sahagian was joined by Steve Peters, George Yasko, Johanna Blake, Jennifer Lofaro and Kevin Smith, who, along with Jill Burrows, studied the concentration and distribution of metals in the soil in and around the borough since 2006.
He said the study was conducted through a Brownfields Assessment Grant sponsored by the EPA. As part of the study, samples were taken from 52 locations, some of which were up to 20 miles away, Sahagian said. From there, he said the samples were then analyzed and the data was scrutinized and interpreted.
While some of the metals concentrations fall within distance from the West Plant, others do not, which suggests that there may have been other sources for these, Sahagian said.
The airfall deposition of metals included zinc, cadmium, arsenic, and lead, he said. Of those, Sahagian said zinc and cadmium are highest near the west plant, while arsenic and lead were everywhere.
The test checked the levels of metals in the soil, groundwater and river water that remained from emissions from the former New Jersey Zinc Co. smelter along the Lehigh River just north of the Kittatinny Ridge, he said.
Sahagian said the results of the study shows that the West Plant has various isolated "hot spots", but not systemic contamination; the far field is basically down for residential or commercial uses; and while there may have been high soil concentrations of metals in the past, there aren't now.
In addition, he said the levels of zinc and cadmium are clearly from the smelter, but that the levels of lead and arsenic have other sources; and that any concerns regarding economic development of the region need not be based on fears of metals contamination in far field soils.
Council President Terry Costenbader appeared relieved by the results.
"This was a very nice presentation; I learned a little bit today," Costenbader said. "This really isn't as bad as we thought it was going to be."
Sahagian concurred with Costenbader's sentiment.
"It turns out not so much, which is remarkable," Sahagian said. "It seems to be well within what's considered safe and reasonable environmental conditions."
Mayor Brad Doll questioned whether the area was viable for use, to which Sahagian said it is right now.
After his presentation, Sahagian presented borough officials with Earth Day T-shirts.
Last week, Sahagian shared the results of the study with members of the Palmerton Area Chamber of Commerce.
In addition to his work with the brownfield centered in the borough, Sahagian has conducted research in paleoclimatology, volcanology, stratigraphy, geodynamics and tectonics, global hydrology and sea level.
He has also taught courses in Earth & Environmental Science, physics and astronomy, volcanology, human-climate interactions, stratigraphy and other areas related to his research and that of his students.
Sahagian was also instrumental in establishing the new section of the American Geophysican Union in "Biogeosciences", and has directed his efforts to organizing and integrating a number of diverse research communities.
At Lehigh, he is now working to integrate disparate disciplines in building the Environmental Initiative into a leading program for environmental science, technology, economics, policy and the many interactions between people and the environment.