Toxic legacy of lead smelting at the Ferry Fields

The land affectionately known as the Ferry Fields — now the site of True Bethel Townhomes — was used as a massive dumping ground for toxic ash, a byproduct of lead production and metal processing.

Those fields were commonly used by children in the neighborhood for sports and play. Many even recalling eating apples, pears, and plums from trees there that would barely produce fruit; or playing in the brush along the railroad tracks where toxins are still present in alarming concentrations.

The site was used as a massive dumping ground for the Michael Heyman Company, which operated a zinc and lead smelting and refining facility at the property now occupied by the used auto lot next door, from 1917 to 1978. That parcel, and parcels to the west have never been remediated in part or in full.

The Scajaquada drain runs underground along the norther edge of the site, and water runoff flows downslope towards Winchester and Fillmore.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization state that a blood lead level of 10 μg/dL or above is a cause for concern; however, lead may impair development and have harmful health effects even at lower levels, and there is no known safe exposure level. Authorities such as the American Academy of Pediatrics define lead poisoning as blood lead levels higher than 10 μg/dL.

Lead smelters with little pollution controls contribute to several environmental problems, especially raised blood lead levels in the surrounding population. The problem is particularly significant in many children who have grown up in the proximity to a lead smelter. In the USA there are 400 forgotten lead smelting firms that operated in the 1930s to 1960s and may have deposited dangerous levels of lead contamination in nearby soil.

Industrial scale lead processing at the Ferry Fields (1917-78)

Plants for the production of lead are generally referred to as lead smelters. Primary lead production begins with sintering. Concentrated lead ore is fed into a sintering machine with iron, silica, limestone fluxescokesoda ashpyrite, and zinc.

Lead is usually smelted in a blast furnace using the carbon from the sintering machine to provide the heat source. As melting occurs, several layers form in the furnace. The molten lead layer sinks to the bottom of the furnace. A layer of the lightest elements, including arsenic and antimony, floats to the top and is referred to as the speiss. A “matte” layer also forms from the copper and metal sulfides. Finally, a layer of blast furnace slag, which contains mostly silicates, also forms. The speiss and the matte are usually sold to copper smelters where they are refined for copper processing. The slag is stored and partially recycled, if the metal content is sufficient.

The lead from the blast furnace, called lead bullion, then undergoes the drossing process. The bullion is agitated in kettles then cooled to 700-800 degrees. This process results in molten lead and dross. Dross refers to the lead oxides, copper, antimony and other elements that float to the top of the lead. Dross is usually skimmed off and sent to a dross furnace to recover the non-lead components which are sold to other metal manufacturers.

Galena, the most common mineral of lead, is primarily lead sulfide (PbS). The sulfide is oxidized to a sulfite (PbSO3) which thermally decomposes into lead oxide and sulfur dioxide gas. Other elements frequently present with lead ores include zinc and silver.

The process produces an ash byproduct that includes hundreds of cancerous metals and toxins. The Ferry Fields were a massive dumping ground for that toxic ash waste for more than six decades.

Although lead poisoning is one of the oldest known work and environmental hazards, the modern understanding of the small amount of lead necessary to cause harm did not come about until the latter half of the 20th century. No safe threshold for lead exposure has been discovered—that is, there is no known amount of lead that is too small to cause the body harm.