The Toxic Site in Greenpoint You’ve Never Heard Of

by Mike Schade on

Somewhere beneath the streets of Greenpoint/East Williamsburg, cancer-causing chemicals are slowly drifting through the groundwater, evaporating into the air and making their way into peoples’ homes.

They’re called the Meeker Avenue Plumes.

When I moved to Sutton Street in Greenpoint four years ago, I immediately fell in love with the neighborhood, especially McGolrick Park. With its majestic trees and promenade, I was hooked.

But no one told me about the toxic solvents lurking in the groundwater underneath my home, under the community. Apparently, it was only around the time I moved here that the plumes were first being discovered.

It’s funny, and almost ironic, because I know McGolrick Park is a prime reason so many people find this part of Greenpoint so attractive. Unfortunately most residents don’t know about the toxic legacy of contamination slowly moving beneath the streets, blocks away from our lovely park.

Toxic Sources

The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) uncovered the contamination a few years ago when investigating the infamous Exxon Mobil oil spill. In their search for the fingerprint of the Exxon spill, they stumbled upon elevated concentrations of other poisonous chemicals seeping through the neighborhoods—chlorinated solvents in the community.

Chemicals linked to cancer.

Unbeknownst to environmental regulators, these dangerous solvents have been spreading into the community for decades, in some cases for at least 60-70 years.

To understand the extent of contamination, the DEC has been doing groundwater, soil and indoor air monitoring all over Greenpoint and East Williamsburg over the past few years. Scores, if not hundreds, of soil, water and air samples have been taken.

As a result of this extensive investigation, the DEC has tracked down the contamination to at least four sources: old dry cleaners and businesses that used and likely dumped the solvents. Since then, the state has formally added four of the sites to the State Superfund program.

  • Spic and Span Cleaners and Dyers (operated from 1900s – mid-1960s)
  • Klink Cosmo Cleaners (operated from 1950s – 1995)
  • Acme Steel/Metal Works (currently in operation with new management)
  • Acme Steel/Brass Foundry (currently in operation with new management)

You can learn about each of the sites by going to the DEC search page and entering each of the site names separately under the “site name” search box in search method #2.

All four of the sites are classified as class 2 toxic sites, meaning they pose a “significant threat to the public health or environment – action required.”

Meeker Ave Plumes area (via HabitatMaps)

View a map of where they’re located, thanks to Habitat Map.

These four sites may only be the tip of the toxic iceberg, because apparently the DEC believes there may be other sites out there contributing to the problems.

Chemicals Harmful to Children’s Health

Two of the primary chemicals found to date are trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethene (PCE), highly toxic chemicals that have no place in our community, especially the air inside and groundwater underneath our homes. According to the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR):

“Drinking or breathing high levels of trichloroethylene may cause nervous system effects, liver and lung damage, abnormal heartbeat, coma, and possibly death…. Drinking small amounts of trichloroethylene for long periods may cause liver and kidney damage, impaired immune system function, and impaired fetal development in pregnant women, although the extent of some of these effects is not yet clear.”

Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) states that, ‘The EPA draft carcinogenicity assessments for TCE from 2001 and 2009 conclude that it is “highly likely to produce cancer in humans.’”

PCE isn’t much better. Exposure to high levels of PCE has been linked to headaches, nausea, difficulty speaking and walking, liver and kidney damage, behavioral changes, and the list goes on and on. According to Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR):

“The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that tetrachloroethylene may reasonably be anticipated to be a carcinogen. Tetrachloroethylene has been shown to cause liver tumors in mice and kidney tumors in male rats.”

Yuck.

What’s Going On?

As part of the state Superfund process, the DEC is currently conducting a comprehensive evaluation of the scope of contamination, called a remedial investigation/feasibility study. After that’s done, they’ll come up with a cleanup plan, which we the public will have an opportunity to weigh in on, likely in the next year. According to the DEC:

“Public comment can make a difference in the remedial action plan. The public is encouraged to review the PRAP and make comments either at the meeting or during the comment period that follows. The comments are reviewed and compiled in a Responsiveness Summary and modifications to the proposed remedial action plan may be made. Additional public notice is required if a modified remedial action plan differs significantly from the earlier selection.”

Live Above the Plumes? Get Your Home Tested

In the meantime, if you live above the plumes, you might be able to get your home tested for free, to determine whether or not chemicals are entering your house via vapor intrusion. According to the Newtown Creek Alliance:

“It’s important to get your property tested to determine whether or not chemicals are migrating into your home, so that DEC and DOH can take appropriate action to prevent this from occurring. Note that just because you live above the plumes, it doesn’t necessarily mean chemicals are migrating into your home. Getting your home tested can offer you peace of mind by determining whether or not your home is safe from TCE and PCE vapor intrusion. Testing is free and confidential. If your home is determined to have elevated levels of chemicals of concern, DEC and DOH will install a mitigation system free of charge to reduce your exposure and protect your home.

To set up an appointment to have your home or business tested please contact Dawn Hettrick at the NYS Department of Health, who can tell you whether or not your property has been tested yet, and whether it might be eligible, (800) 458-1158 x27860.

Educate Yourself! Learn More!

The whole Superfund process will likely take years and years, but it’s important for us to stay vigilant and watch over the process and make sure DEC does what’s right for our neighborhoods.

To learn more, check out this great resource page that members of the Newtown Creek Alliance, including myself, have put together.

If you’d like to dive even deeper, the Greenpoint Library has all of the files relevant to the site. You can go there anytime (when they’re open of course) and review the files.

Mike Schade

Mike Schade

Michael lives in Greenpoint and is the Markets Campaign Coordinator with the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ), a national environmental health organization. Michael has over a decade of experience working on environmental health and justice issues. For four years, he was the Western New York Director of Citizens’ Environmental Coalition, where he coordinated community, marketplace and policy campaigns resulting in substantial victories for environmental and public health. He also worked for the Buffalo Coalition for Economic Justice. Ethisphere Magazine listed Michael as one of the 100 Most Influential People in Business Ethics for 2007 and the PVC Campaign received the “Path to Victory” Business Ethics Network award. He has a B.S. in Environmental Studies from the State University of NY at Buffalo.
  • Holly Fairall

    Holly Fairall commented:

    Thank you so much for writing this piece. This is very important information that the community needs to know about. Your writing has also motivated me to apply for testing, which I’ve put off through the years, thinking that there wasn’t any “real” risk. So who knows, maybe your powerful words will save us from future sickness. Can’t wait to read more from you!

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