Croydon Woods, a toxic Superfund site, wins awards for environmental stewardship

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For more than 30 years, Connie Storz has kept an eye on an 88-acre patch of woods near Keystone Elementary School in Croydon, Bucks County. As a school administrator, she was interested in what was happening in Croydon Woods.

“This was a complete dump,” Storz said, walking through Croydon Woods Nature Preserve recently as its bare trees were beginning to emerge from winter.

“A lot of homeless people, a lot of kids hanging out here and there was a lot of quad biking,” she said. “That was probably the worst, the kids riding the quad bikes here. And motorcycles.”

Connie Storz
Connie Storz, who worked at nearby Keystone Elementary School for 32 years, remembers when Croydon Woods Preserve was “a dump” and the community effort it took to get it back. (EMMA LEE/WHYY)

But public use of forests has come a long way in the last three decades. As one of Pennsylvania’s last remaining coastal plain forests, Croydon Woods is home to frogs, beavers and owls. It lies along the Delaware River near Bristol and is dense with beeches and magnolias, wild cinnamon ferns and small, endangered grasses.

It is now maintained as a public green space by the Heritage Conservancy, which recently received the Governor Josh Shapiro Environmental Excellence Award for the restoration and management of Croydon’s woodlands.

Croydon Woods
Once a wasteland and off-road site, Croydon Woods is now a nature reserve, full of beeches and magnolias, wild cinnamon ferns and small, endangered grasses. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Although an urban green oasis on the surface, Croydon Woods has a legacy of environmental pollution underneath. The area’s groundwater is contaminated with the carcinogen TCE, or trichlorethylene. In 1986, the site was added to the federal Superfund list of toxic sites.

TCE is used in the manufacture of refrigerants and cleaning solutions. Exposure to high concentrations of TCE can cause a long list of conditions, including cancer and damage to the kidneys, liver, nervous system and fetal development.

For over a century, the area around Croydon was used for the production of chemicals by Rohm and Haas, now Dow Chemical. Under Superfund law, chemical companies are responsible for remediating a plume of groundwater in the area surrounding the woods, but the particular plume of TCE found in the groundwater beneath the Croydon woods is of a different kind. It could never be positively traced back to Rohm and Haas or Dow.

Teachers from nearby Keystone Elementary School use Croydon Woods as a teaching site. The students are called Tree Guardians and keep an eye on the young trees that the Heritage Conservancy protects. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“The chemical signatures were different in the two plumes,” said Andrew Hass, EPA remediation project manager. “The thought was that there may be some illegal dumping.”

With no responsible party, remediation fell to the EPA and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, paid for by the federal Superfund established in 1980 by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA).

Croydon Woods
The vernal pools at Croydon Woods provide a breeding ground for frogs and salamanders. (Emma Lee/WHYY)(

Hass said that in the 1980s, TCE contamination was over 100 parts per billion. The goal now is to reduce TCE levels to 5 parts per billion. After two major cleanup projects over the past 30 years — including pumping groundwater and treating it to the surface and injecting a biostimulant into the ground to promote TCE-eating bacteria — it’s almost there.

Hass held up his thumb and forefinger to show how close they were. He said some measurements show levels as low as 5.2 parts per billion, but the last 0.2 ppb is the most difficult. It could be decades before Croydon Woods is finally removed from the active Superfund list.

Croydon Woods
Once a wasteland and off-road site, Croydon Woods is now a nature reserve, full of beeches and magnolias, wild cinnamon ferns and small, endangered grasses. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Despite the damage to groundwater, there is no danger to recreational land use because TCE is not present at the surface, according to the EPA. All homes that once used wells that drew from polluted groundwater have been connected to the municipal water system since 1989.

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