City officials hold community meeting regarding status of three River Wards rec centers

Presenting at the meeting were Aparna Palantino, deputy commissioner of the city Department of Parks and Recreation; Jose Ramos, Lead and Healthy Homes Manager at the Department of Public Health; and Jack Kelly, environmental engineer with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Samuel Recreation Center. | Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

City officials announced that there is not yet a timetable for when residents can expect the three partially closed recreation centers in the River Wards – Samuel Recreation Center, Heitzman Recreation Center and Monkiewicz Recreation Center – to reopen.

The update came Thursday evening during a community meeting at Samuel Recreation Center. The athletic fields at all three sites, which were closed in early September, were part of 10 total recreation centers in the city tested for elevated levels of lead. However, the playgrounds, buildings and other concrete areas of these sites remain open and safe for use, according to city officials.

Presenting at the meeting were Aparna Palantino, deputy commissioner of the city Department of Parks and Recreation; Jose Ramos, Lead and Healthy Homes Manager at the Department of Public Health; and Jack Kelly, environmental engineer with the Environmental Protection Agency.

According to Maita Soukup, associate director of communications for the city, all off the lead testing was preliminary. A total of 10 soil samples were taken over the summer at Heitzman Rec Center, and four were found to have elevated levels of lead. At Samuel Rec Center, five of 10 samples were found to have elevated levels or lead. At Monkiewicz, 16 of 34 samples were found to have elevated amounts of lead. According to Palantino’s presentation, anything more than 400 parts per million is considered to be an elevated amount of lead as per the EPA’s standards. To date, the city has not been willing to share exactly what those numbers are, partially because, as Kelly explained, they could be misleading. He said that more testing was necessary to create a fuller, more accurate picture of the lead issue. Palantino said that the testing has begun, and the city should get the results back in about four to six weeks. According to Soukup, the further testing will be necessary “to understand what, if any, action will need to be taken.” Once the results are obtained, they will be shared with the community and site-specific plans for each location will be created.

In an email, Soukup said there are currently no plans to soil test any other recreation centers in the city.

“Due to Philadelphia’s industrial past, various soils around the city may contain lead,” said Soukup. “Parks & Recreation is working with a sense of urgency to ensure residents can once again enjoy all of the facilities at the three impacted sites as soon as possible.”

The city’s industrial past is especially prevalent in Kensington, where many lead smelting plants were once located, the most recent of which was Anzon lead smelting factory, which closed in 1996.

The other recreation centers in the River Wards tested were Konrad Square in Kensington, East Poplar Playground and East Poplar Field in Northern Liberties and Towey Playground in Fishtown.

In other parts of the city, Disston Park (Tacony), and Julian Abele Park and Chew Playground (both in South Philly) were tested. All of these sites were located within 1,000 feet of former lead smelting sites. All of the other sites checked out except for Chew, which had its field closed in spring 2019 and partially re-opened in fall 2019 following comprehensive testing. New field construction is underway there.

According to a presentation by Ramos, pregnant women and children under the age of 6 are most at risk for lead poisoning. Both are at risk of exposure via both ingestion or inhalation of lead dust. Ramos’s presentation also said that parents can protect their children from lead poisoning by having them wash their hands frequently and take their shoes off prior to entering the home.