Brooklyn Neighborhood Potential Superfund Site



In the north point of Brooklyn, in a neighborhood called Greenpoint, there is a potential health risk whose size and scope worries residents living there like never before. Though residents who have lived in the community for decades have known about the possible health risks as a result of oil spills from the area’s past century of dozens of oil refineries leaking into Newtown Creek, which separates Greenpoint from Queens, toxic gases may be seeping into their basements. There are also concerns about the city’s largest sewage treatment plant that has violated federal environmental standards again and again.

While the toxins form the oil refineries goes back over a century, the toxic gases come from the area’s manufacturing past, foundries, and dry-cleaning plants. Greenpoint is an immigrant neighborhood that has recently become a magnet for artists and young families because the rent is still affordable, and the area boasts eclectic restaurants and other neighborhood charms.

However, this is where one of the problems lies. While newer residents are more likely to want authorities to do something, older residents are reportedly more resistant. They are worried about their homes being condemned, housing prices collapsing, as well as simple distrust for the government. Perhaps understandable, but also disconcerting if these toxic chemicals are poisoning the occupants of the homes.

Airborne Chemicals Found

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation began testing the neighborhood in 2005. While 58 homes were chosen for inspection, only 12 residents have allowed their homes to actually be tested. Two of the 12 homes were found to have air contaminated with chemicals used to degrease metal parts and in dry-clean fabrics. Eight other homes found the same chemicals below the foundation. Investigators said though the air in these eight homes was not contaminated, it still could be at some future date.

The chemicals found by investigators include tetrachloroethene, also called PCE or perc, and trichloroethene, or TCE. These chemicals were released into the area by businesses no longer there or who no longer use the chemicals. PCE and TCE exposure can cause headaches, dizziness, and impaired balance. The amount of time and level of exposure to the chemicals can lead to organ damage and increased risk of cancer.

Possible Solution

New York state officials have said the remedy for this is to seal cracks and install a vent system below the foundation or building slab to draw out the contaminated air at a cost of $5,000 to $10,000. This would be paid by the state with the hope of recouping the cost from those responsible. The residents of affected homes would not have to leave while the fix is going on.

While this is a fairly new study whose investigators say needs to continue, residents, environmental groups and the state attorney general all have lawsuits pending against Exxon Mobil for the oil spills. One of the spills was not noticed until 1978 that contaminated 52 acres of commercial and residential property with petroleum. Another spill is believed to have originated with an explosion at a Standard Oil refinery tank in 1950. Other studies point to spills dating as far back as the 1800s.

The Environmental Protection Agency, Gov. Paterson and Mayor Bloomberg have been contacted by the Newtown Creek Alliance asking that the area be designated a Superfund site. The EPA has been assessing the area to see if it qualifies for such a designation.