Much of Brooklyn has seen restoration and new life in recent years, but Brooklyn’s past still lingers, including the legacy of its industrial history and the resulting pollution. Nowhere is this more true than in Greenpoint.
According to the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), there are 97 Superfund sites in Kings County. And when mapped, the majority of them fall in Greenpoint. The neighborhood seems to live in a state of tension between the potential danger of these sites and the urge to build, grow, and ultimately thrive.
Superfund sites are designated under a 35-year-old federal law authorizing the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to identify polluted locations requiring long-term response to clean up hazardous material contamination. According to the Regional Public Liaison for the EPA, George Zachos, “a superfund site is any site that the EPA looked at for possible work.” He says there are thousands in New York and New Jersey and “probably twenty…thirty in Brooklyn.” New York State’s Environmental Site Remediation Database has a higher number, with 97 sites.
Zachos says multiple parties are involved in the cleanup at each Superfund site. It can take years—even decades—to clean up and cost many millions of dollars, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Health issues for various toxic chemicals at numerous sites include cancers, respiratory disease, heart disease, and stunted mental development in children, according to the Center For Public Integrity.
One Greenpoint Superfund Site in particular gained a lot of attention in the past few weeks, after the New York Department of Buildings approved a permit for 3,500 people to attend a Halloween party inside the premises. The party site was the NuHart Plastics Factory, at 280 Franklin St. The factory produced, stored and shipped plastic and vinyl products from the 1950’s to 2004. In 2006, there was an effort to clean up chemicals at the site under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which included “removal of oil stained trenches; demolition of boilers and silos; asbestos abatement; in-place fill and seal of 17 underground storage tanks (on and off site) which contained fuel, oil, plasticizers, acetone; product recovery wells installed to remove contaminated groundwater,” according to Environmental Stewardship Concepts Remedial Investigation Review.
In 2010, DEC determined the site a Superfund Site and five years later, it is listed as class 02, which either means it is on the Federal National Priorities List or hazardous waste or its components/breakdown products present a significant threat to the public or environment. At this particular site, there are toxic plumes located underground that contain 40,000-60,000 gallons of phthalates and trichloroethylene (TCE), both of which have migrated offsite, according to Environmental Stewardship Concepts.
So not everyone agreed it was a great site for a party. Residents live near this factory warehouse, including across the street and even adjacent to its very walls. When the Halloween party opened the factory’s doors again, many of those residents were outraged.
The party did not last much longer than an hour after the music was turned on the evening of Oct. 31st due to the Fire Department’s determination that there were safety hazards. But the fact that a permit was given to the entertainment company in the first place brought more than 100 residents to a neighborhood meeting Nov. 2 to demand responsibility from the property owner, DuPont Street Developers, LLC.
But the complaints were not so much about pollution, and not all Greenpoint residents worry much about potential danger from industrial residue. Nearly a year ago, Mike Brant moved into an apartment building adjacent to the NuHart Plastics Factory and the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center Superfund Sites, along Newtown Creek—one of the nation’s most polluted waterways, according to EPA. Brant says he’s grateful to have an affordable place to live. He says there were 100 total lottery slots for the affordable housing in his building and 60,000 applications.
“I just think given the economic concerns of living in New York… the threat of living somewhere that’s polluted to some degree is not as big of a deal to me,” Brant says, “and also I recognize the fact that I live in New York, it’s not necessarily the cleanest place.”
Newtown Creek, which borders Greenpoint and southern Queens, can easily be mistaken for a beautiful site that displays the Manhattan skyline across its bank. However, its 3.8-mile-long sediment contains toxins far beyond what the eye can see. According to the EPA, in the mid-1800’s “more than 50 refineries were located along its banks, including oil refineries, petrochemical plants, fertilizer and glue factories, sawmills, and lumber and coal yards. The creek was crowded with commercial vessels, including large boats bringing in raw materials and fuel and taking out oil, chemicals and metals.” The EPA site confirms that there were countless oil spills even dumping of raw sewage at one point in 1850’s.
The NY Department of Health estimated that 240,218 people lived within one mile of the Newtown Creek area at the time of the 2010 Census.
If you stop by the creek today and stand next to any of the various operating factories, you can see recreational boats docked, and people kayaking and even swimming in the water.
One of Newtown Creek’s EPA Remedial Project Managers, Joseph Battipaglia, says the site is still under investigation. As for dangers, he says, “There is currently insufficient information to determine the site-wide human exposure status at the Newtown Creek site but, under the current project schedule, both the human health and ecological risk assessments are scheduled to be finalized in 2016.” He adds that previous samples have shown sediment with a variety of contaminants, including pesticides, metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls and volatile organic compounds. All of which are potentially harmful to human health and can migrate into the air.
Battipaglia says that the air was tested in June of 2013, and they did not find the presence of “contaminants above background levels for the area.” Background levels meaning upland locations within the creek’s industrial zone.
The chair of the Environmental Committee for Brooklyn Community Board One, Ryan Kuonen, says the issue is complicated. “I feel that we need more answers to understand the risks that all of these old sites still pose to current residents,” she says. “That things that had hazardous components were manufactured in our neighborhood and left a legacy of pollution is something that concerns me. I feel that our generation should not continue to push the remediation of these sites down the road to other generations because of budgetary concerns and clean up all the hazardous conditions that remain.” However, she adds that she does not think it is unsafe for people to live or work there.
As for the recreational use of the creek, Battipaglia says the New York State Department of Health completed a public health assessment for Newtown Creek in 2014, which reviewed chemicals in sediments and biological contaminants in surface water of the creek. “Based upon this assessment, the State of New York concluded that full body immersion in the Creek (e.g., swimming, scuba diving) could harm people’s health,” Battipaglia says.
Signs posted on the entrances to the creek say “DANGER: NO SWIMMING/DIVING” but the listed reason states: “These water bodies are affected by strong current and sudden drop-offs that have contributed to drowning.”
Zachos says no one can keep people “from jumping in if they want to. It’s not something like if you get splashed you’re gonna die instantly. But you don’t wanna drink that stuff.
“People go kayaking, people go swimming,” he says. “Nothing’s good for you, everything is cumulative.”
To view the map and the specific Superfund Sites in Brooklyn, click here.