Every summer for the past forty years, New Yorkers have flocked to the Red Hook ball fields, seeking football, fly balls, and food trucks slinging authentic Latin American cuisine. Few of those visitors have ever stopped to consider the history of the soil beneath their feet…but perhaps they should.
For the third time since 2012, the Red Hook ball fields are undergoing testing for lead contamination, a historical remnant of the neighborhood’s gritty industrial past.
This past March, representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency collected samples from 29 locations throughout the park, including ball fields #5–#8 (bordered by Lorraine, Henry, Bay, and Hicks Streets), three soccer/football fields, and multiple spectator and picnic areas.
The results of those tests—expected sometime in April—will detail the level and extent of lead pollution deposited by Columbia Smelting and Refinery Works, a factory that was once sited at the corner of Hicks and Lorraine, directly atop ball field #7. The factory operated from the 1920s through the late 1930s.
Authorities have also previously found lead lacing the soil of the Red Hook Houses, Brooklyn’s largest housing development, located directly across the street from the former factory. However, the EPA reports that at this point, no additional testing or remediation is needed there.
The New York City Parks Department does plan to open the the recreation area in 2015 according to schedule, writing in an email: “The ball fields remain safe for all park users and pose no imminent threat to public health.”
Looking for Lead
Screening for lead in the 58-acre park began in 2012, when the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation sampled the grounds and found elevated levels of the heavy metal in the soil. It appears this testing was prompted by a USA Today investigation that identified hundreds of former industrial sites throughout the U.S. that were potentially contaminated by lead and other toxins.
After reviewing the results, the Parks Department, together with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, determined that the risk of public exposure was “minimal” and that no remedial actions were needed. They did implement some protective measures, including regular ground cover maintenance and the placement of clay or concrete over some contaminated areas.
Also in 2012, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation “screened the site” as part of a nationwide portfolio of potential historic smelter sites. The DEC did not respond to a request for comments, so it remains unclear what that screening entailed; the agency referred the site to the EPA for review in early 2014.
In October of last year, the EPA collected their own samples from the ballfields, at varying locations and depths. Results showed lead contamination at every level, at concentrations high enough to require further action.
Looking at Levels
The EPA’s hazard level for lead in children’s play areas is 400 parts per million, though it should be noted that individual states have established lower soil lead standards. Many European nations regulate soil lead at 100 ppm.
Some samples from the surface at the ball fields show lead at nearly twice the EPA’s hazard level. At one to six inches deep, levels averaged 1,711ppm, but went as high as 2,800—nearly seven times the hazard level.
Averages and ranges of lead concentrations per depth below the ground surface are listed here:
|Sample Depth||Range of Detections (ppm)||Average (ppm)|
|0-1″||240 – 980||635|
|1-6″||770 – 2,800||1,711|
|6-12″||760 – 5,700||2,693|
|12-18″||390 – 2,600||1,638|
|18-24″||130 – 2,600||1,483|
The EPA returned to the ballfields this March for follow-up testing, in order to determine boundaries of the contamination. Results are expected in April, after which the EPA will develop a remediation plan to address the issue. Planning for and designing the cleanup will likely take about a year.
Elias Rodriguez, Public Information Officer for the EPA, would not speculate on what that plan might entail, but noted that “it will be completed in accordance with EPA and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) standards.”
Directly Across the Street
In 2014, while EPA representatives were testing the ballfields for lead, they also collected 27 samples from five grassy areas within the Red Hook East Houses. Some buildings within the enormous development sit directly across the street from the former smelter. The complex was constructed in 1938 while the factory furnaces were still operational.
According to the EPA, results showed that in three of the five locations, including two adjacent to a playground, elevated lead levels were detected, “but only at depths more than a foot below the ground surface.”
In the remaining two locations, elevated lead levels were detected at varying depths, but lead levels within the upper six inches were “only slightly above the screening level.” EPA reports that these two locations are not play areas or main thoroughfares and appeared to have good vegetative cover.
It would seem likely that, given the development’s close proximity to the factory, the lead contamination in the park and the houses would be linked. However, Rodriguez says this is not the case. “The lead that was detected was found to be unrelated to the historic smelter,” he stated in an email.
The ratios and concentrations of certain metals found in the soil samples at the ball fields (including lead, tin, antimony, copper, and zinc) are characteristic of smelter emissions—those ratios and concentrations were not found in a similar pattern at the Houses.
Rodriguez suggests the lead at the development could have come from several sources, including “historic fill used during construction of the housing complex.”
Regardless of the source, the EPA “does not believe that these lead detections present a significant health concern,” and no additional remediation will take place there. All results for the Red Hook Houses have been provided to the property owner.
Assurance of Safety
Both the EPA and the Parks Department stress that though elevated lead levels do exist in the Red Hook ball field soil, park users should not be concerned. “Lead at the surface does not present an immediate health concern,” Rodriguez explained, “especially because there is grass cover and the daily duration that people could be in contact with bare soil is limited.”
Both agencies do encourage visitors to remove dirt from their shoes and wash their hands after visiting the park and before eating.
To that end, the Parks Department indicates that they will be placing hand-washing and boot-scraping stations at the park, along with signage to promote good hygiene.
Maeri Ferguson, a Parks Department representative, told NYER: “We look forward to finding a long-term solution that keeps everyone safe and has the least impact on the use of fields, so that residents may continue to benefit from the exercise and recreation at the ballfields.”