For more than a decade, Kensington residents worried when they saw children roll, run, slide or sled down what they dubbed "Mount Wawa," a mound of dirt that was once the site of the most notorious lead factory in Philadelphia's river wards.
Their fears were well-founded.
The state Department of Environmental Protection confirmed on Friday that it found "unacceptable" levels of lead-contaminated soil at 26 locations around the busy Kensington shopping district, which includes the mound. One soil sample tested 25 times higher than the federal limit for what's deemed safe for children.
The state said it did the testing "in response" to an Inquirer and Daily News investigation, published in June, that found toxic levels of lead in soil at more than 80 locations in the Kensington, Fishtown and Port Richmond neighborhoods, including at the site of the former lead factory, last known as Anzon.
The DEP announced it had entered into an agreement with the property owner, Port Richmond Development, to quickly clean up the contaminated site, which spreads over eight acres on both sides of Aramingo Avenue.
The former brownfield is now a retail hub with an Applebee's, Dunkin' Donuts, Rite Aid, and AutoZone as well as a Wawa.
Sandy Salzman, a longtime resident of Fishtown, said federal and state officials repeatedly assured neighbors the mound posed no risk.
"That mound of dirt was not in any way encapsulated in a way that was fair to our neighborhood or safe," Salzman said Friday.
DEP officials now consider the problem serious. "We are ensuring that the responsible property owners … implement a remedy that is fully protective of those who live near or use the site and do so as quickly as possible," DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said in a statement.
Port Richmond Development issued a statement saying that the company did not cause the contamination, had "voluntarily redeveloped the abandoned property" to DEP standards in 2003, and is cooperating with the agency. The company would not estimate how much the cleanup would cost it.
Thomas Farley, commissioner of the city's Department of Public Health, said Friday, "These soil lead levels are unacceptable and this site must be remediated. We look forward to seeing this happen quickly."
Lead is a potent neurotoxin that even at low levels of exposure can cause permanent brain damage in children.
For decades, the Anzon plant blasted lead dust through smokestacks over the densely packed neighborhood, which includes parts of Kensington, Port Richmond, and Fishtown. The factory closed in the late 1990s.
Port Richmond Development bought the land in 2002 and agreed to make it safe by either paving over the contaminated soil or capping it with one foot of clean fill dirt and grass.
As part of the "Toxic City" investigation, reporters tested a patch of bare soil at the apron of "Mount Wawa." The lead level registered 2,904 parts per million, nearly seven times the allowable limit for areas where children play. In response, DEP officials pledged to investigate.
The DEP investigation found widespread contamination, in some cases at much higher levels than reporters found.
Under a consent order and agreement with the DEP reached Wednesday, the developer must submit a cleanup plan within 45 days. The company already has agreed to remove "Mount Wawa," put down protective fabric, and cover the area with two feet of clean topsoil.
Fishtown resident Rachel Kaminski, who along with others is leading an effort to rid the neighborhood of contaminated soil, called the results "disconcerting" and questioned whether the developer's remediation plan for the mound goes far enough.
"They capped it last time," she said. "And now we're back to square one. People can wear down the top layer, and then there's natural erosion."
Kaminski said she hopes that the state does soil testing beyond the Anzon footprint and into other parts of the river wards.
At one time, Philadelphia had 36 lead smelters — more than any other city in America. Fourteen of them operated in the river wards.