Stephanie Augustine ’14
Biodiversity & Conservation Biology Major
Palmerton residents, like my own grandpa, still recall the scent of rotten eggs from the zinc smelter’s heyday, pervading the air around the town. The same sulfur dioxide from which emanated the smell rose higher into the sky, into the clouds, and was dissolved into the surrounding water droplets. These droplets became sulfurous acid, and as the cloud condensed into rain, the summer thunderstorms brought acidic rain pouring on the forests of Blue Mountain across the Lehigh River from residential Palmerton.
Photographs from the 1940s and ‘50s document a grey plume rising from the smelter stacks, a plume of the sulfur dioxide gas and ashy particles of heavy metals like zinc, cadmium, and lead. The plume also drifted across the river to settle on Blue Mountain, clogging leaf pores and contaminating soil. The New Jersey Zinc Company, owner and operator of the two zinc smelters belching out fumes yet also instrumental in the everyday employment of thousands of Palmerton residents, including my grandpa, slowly choked out the mountainside trees.
Over the approximately eighty years the New Jersey Zinc Co. smelters operated (1898 – 1980), slowly, life on Blue Mountain dissipated, leaving a rocky, barren, slope dotted with skeletal remains of dried forest described that was described as resembling the surface of the moon. Even as I grew up a few miles from the mountain, I remember the bare hillside of the early 2000s. While it took many years until I actually hiked the Appalachian trail which ran on the ridge on the Palmerton side of the river, as a kid, I saw amateur and serious backpackers wander in and out of town through summer and autumn every year, unaware that they had to pass signs declaring the local water to be unsafe and warning parents to limit the amount of time young children spent in the mountain vicinity. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had declared the contamination extensive enough to warrant declaration as a Superfund site (in 1987) which required remediation. Since that time, the EPA’s restoration efforts were unsuccessful due to a lack of maintenance which allowed a native invasive species, grey birch, to encroach and overpower many other species. The grey birch absorbed metals, like zinc, from the soil, into its leaves and in autumn, dropped the concentrated metals onto the surface again, and even now is found frequently across the mountain.
Things began to turn around for the moonscape of Blue Mountain around the time when I was still a kid growing up in the area – at first, I was oblivious to the news about the mountain. But when the Lehigh Gap Nature Center was established by dedicated volunteers as a small building near the edge of the highly damaged zone and began to purchase the ~750 acres of land with funding from the EPA and Viacom (the entity up the corporate ladder who purchased the New Jersey Zinc Co. and got Blue Mtn. and cleanup responsibility in the bargain).
Several years later, after applying sewage and fertilizer to the soil, native grass species were distributed via aerial seeding. Mostly warm season grasses, they were adapted to the harsher, drier environment of the rocky slopes and began to add vitality to the landscape. I remember watching the mountain ‘green up’ without understanding the underlying process of succession, where a damaged area begins to grow grasses which form a healthy grassland ecosystem. As more soil and nutrients become available through formation of detritus, larger species of plants and eventually forests will fill in the area, each changing ecosystem supporting microbial and wildlife communities.
The Lehigh Gap Nature Center continues to monitor the growth, coordinating dozens of researchers studying everything from soil (one of my personal contributions!) to birds, deer grazing habits, monarch butterfly migration, native bee populations, and soil microbial communities. They have also established more than ten miles of guided trails, some suitable for walking and hiking, others, like the Delaware and Lehigh Heritage corridor permissible for biking and horseback riding. The story of Blue Mountain is one of hope, as critters return to the area, and school groups and families visit the area to explore the wildlife refuge and enjoy the beautiful natural ecology.
For more information on the nature center, and for trail maps visit www.lgnc.org