Thursday, July 27th 2006
Urban explorers allege toxic dumping at the Byberry demolition site.
Radical Ed just can't say goodbye to Byberry. Like hundreds of other "urban explorers," the 39-year-old industrial worker admits to an obsession with the enormous abandoned mental hospital, its decaying architecture and sordid history of patient abuse. Part of a network of "Byberrians" that stretches across the state and beyond, he trespasses weekly into the cavernous empty buildings, a 130-acre complex that looms over the Somerton section of Northeast Philadelphia [Naked City, "Byberry's Long Goodbye," Andy Greenberg, March 16, 2006]. Even the hospital's demolition, initiated by Westrum Development Corporation last month, hasn't stopped Radical Ed from infiltrating the grounds, looking for a few final adventures and souvenirs from the buildings' crumbling remains.
But earlier this month, he found something unexpected. While spelunking through a steam tunnel under Southampton Road that leads to Byberry, his Maglite unexpectedly illuminated hundreds of labeled bags of asbestos-contaminated debris piled chest high, filling the tunnel as far as he could see, nearly the length of a city block. Radical Ed, who uses a pseudonym to avoid prosecution for trespassing, smelled a scandal.
Ed suspected that Westrum Development had dumped the toxic bags illegally, planning to seal the tunnel. After spreading the word on www.opacity.us, a popular urban exploring Web forum, he and another Byberrian who goes by the name AbandonedPA decided to blow the whistle.
They called Jerry Junod, the asbestos program manager of the city's Public Health Department, who's overseeing the demolition of Byberry's asbestos-filled structures. Junod suggested that the bags were probably being stored temporarily in the tunnel, to be properly disposed later. Radical Ed and AbandonedPA found this hard to swallow.
"Why would workers lug these bags all the way down block-long hallways and down flights of stairs to be placed in an underground tunnel off the property?" Ed wrote on the opacity forum. "Seems like an awful lot of work just to bring them all up a week later for proper disposal."
But in a phone interview, Health Department spokesman Jeff Moran called the urban explorers' accusations of wrongdoing on the part of the demolition crew "ridiculous," pointing out that several agencies are monitoring the abatement. He explained that the asbestos in the tunnels was recently pulled out from the walls of the tunnel itself and bagged for removal.
The urban explorers don't buy this second story, either. In fact, Radical Ed says he's torn open the plastic bags to reveal ceiling tiles and other debris matching the interior of buildings that stand 100 yards away from the tunnel.
"There's no way that they could have gotten that much junk out of the tunnel itself," says Ed. "If they're now talking about how they're busy taking all this asbestos out of tunnel, it's just because they got caught with their hand in the cookie jar."
Despite repeated phone calls, Westrum Development official couldn't be reached for comment. Penalties for hazardous waste dumping can be as much as five- or six-figure fines for civil cases and jail time for criminal cases. If Westrum owns the tunnel, which was unclear Tuesday, the alleged misbehavior may be nothing more than improper asbestos abatement, not dumping.
Ed worries that frequent flooding in the tunnels, sometimes reaching neck-high levels, could eventually leach asbestos or other toxic materials from the bags into nearby groundwater. Although asbestos is most dangerous when airborne, the Federal Superfund Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry states that small amounts of waterborne asbestos may also be carcinogenic.
Whether or not asbestos in the Southampton tunnel could end up in drinking water, Radical Ed and AbandonedPA's accounts imply very real infringements of the city's abatement code.
The Health Department's Asbestos Control Regulations state that all walls and floors at an abatement site must be covered in at least two layers of plastic sheeting, and that a negative pressure ventilation system with its own dedicated power source must be running 24 hours a day during the abatement process. According to the trespassers, neither of these precautions was present in the tunnel.
Radical Ed isn't surprised that his complaints have been ignored, given his position as a member of an illegal subculture.
"Jeff Moran hasn't been down in that tunnel with a flashlight," he says. "He only knows what he's told. Of course he's not going to believe a bunch of curiosity-seekers wearing rock-and-roll T-shirts, trespassing in Byberry with a six-pack of beer."
Byberry has served as a giant playground for adventurers since its closure 16 years ago, and Somerton residents have seen it as an eyesore and a magnet for vandalism and arson. But for Westrum Development, the site is a cash cow. Their stake in the property is expected to sell for around $140 million after demolition and cleanup. Much of the property will be aimed toward senior housing.
Still, not even Westrum's investors are as eager to see Byberry erased from the landscape as Somerton Civic Association leader Mary Jane Hazell. Hazell, who sees the property as a blight upon the neighborhood, has been campaigning for demolition for more than a decade and she's long held a grudge against the trespassing hoodlums that Byberry attracts. She sees their sudden concern for Somerton's environmental health as juvenile conspiracy-mongering.
"They're going to say anything to have an excuse to keep going in there," says Hazell. "Westrum took away their playpen, and they'll do anything they can to cause Westrum problems."
There's no love lost between Hazell and Radical Ed, who's also lived in Somerton for most of his life. Ed calls her a "crackpot," a "nutcase," and "one of those old ladies who'll steal your basketball if it rolls onto her lawn." He laments that her vendetta against the Byberrians has caused her to make allies of those he sees as polluting her own backyard.
"It seems that her thought is 'out of sight, out of mind,'" says Ed, who denies that his goal is to prevent the destruction of his beloved asylum.
"It was once something really special, but after all the fires and the vandalism, I suppose it's better that it gets demolished," he says with a sigh of resignation. "When it comes to things like the asbestos though, I'd just like to see that it gets done right."
This article was written by Andy Greenberg and published by Philadelphia City Paper on Thursday, July 27th 2006 and NOT owned by nor affiliated with opacity.us, but are recorded here solely for educational use. The photographs featured in the article are randomly selected from the Philadelphia State Hospital (Byberry) galleries on opacity.us unless noted otherwise; they may not directly relate to the article subject matter except for the site location - any other relation is purely coincidental.