Cleanup at three Brooklyn superfund sites will continue as planned, a Public Information Official working with the EPA told NYER last week. The work to remediate the Gowanus Canal, Newtown Creek, and the lead-contaminated Red Hook Ballfields will move forward, despite any actions by the new Trump administration.
In recent weeks, controversy and confusion has swirled after the Trump’s transition team ordered a freeze on all EPA grants and subcontracts. According to ProPublica, the move could “affect a significant part of the agency’s budget allocations and even threaten to disrupt core operations ranging from toxic cleanups to water quality testing.”
There has been a flurry of information leaking from sources within the EPA—most unable to be officially confirmed—but an EPA employee aware of the freeze spoke with ProPublica and stated that:
“…he had never seen anything like it in nearly a decade with the agency. Hiring freezes happened, he said, but freezes on grants and contracts seemed extraordinary. The employee said the freeze appeared to be nationwide, and as of Monday night it was not clear for how long it would be in place.”
However, Elias Rodriguez, the EPA officer assigned to the Brooklyn projects, told NYER that “the EPA fully intends to continue to provide information to the public. A fresh look at public affairs and communications processes is common practice for any new administration, and a short pause in activities allows for this assessment.”
In general, Superfund cleanups are primarily funded not by the government but by “responsible parties” that contributed to the pollution.
The fields impacted include Ball Fields 5, 6, 7 and 8 and Soccer Field 7.
The cleanup, performed by the New York City Parks Department and overseen by the EPA, is slated to begin this fall and cost approximately $105 million.
The Gowanus Canal was named a Superfund site in 2011. Cleanup is in progress, beginning with debris removal late last year, and is expected to continue until at least 2022.
Newtown Creek competes with the Gowanus Canal for the title of the most polluted body of water in New York City. It was named a Superfund site in 2010, but studies are still ongoing; feasible cleanup recommendations are expected by 2019.
News reports indicate that the Trump administration has big plans underway to undermine the work of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the lead agency working to protect our health and the environment from pollution. One troublesome development has already happened: last Friday the EPA was instructed to freeze all its grants and contracts, a move that could seriously impede the agency’s work the longer it is in place.
This is bad news for all Americans, especially our nation’s children.
Instead of blatantly attempting to put fossil fuel interests ahead of our clean air and clean water, the Trump administration must instead show us how it will protect our health and well-being.
Why we need the EPA
Clean air and clean water are not just “nice to have.”
Pollutants like smog, ozone, and mercury contribute to worsening asthma attacks (especially in young children), heart and lung ailments, and even premature death. What’s more, pollution imposes billions of dollars in costs to the economy in terms of hospital and other health costs, lost work days, lost school days, and other burdens, in addition to pain and suffering.
Equally important, the EPA has worked to implement major environmental laws passed by Congress, including the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, which have helped to significantly to drive down harmful pollution and improve the health of Americans.
We need only look to the air quality in Beijing or New Delhi to understand where our country would be without these fundamental protections. Americans need and depend on the EPA to be our watchdog and guardian.
Gutting the EPA hurts real people
Efforts to gut the EPA—via budget and staffing cuts, cuts in research grants and activities, or by stopping the implementation of key public health safeguards—will hurt real people. These actions would almost certainly mean more children getting sick and American taxpayers not getting the science-based protections and information we have invested in.
When big car companies like Volkswagen and Fiat Chrysler evade our nation’s emissions laws, it is the EPA that takes the lead in bringing them into compliance (using science and methods that sometimes come from independent investigators such as the West Virginia University team that first discovered the so-called defeat device in VW vehicles).
The EPA works with Tribal communities to help with the cleanup of toxic waste sites, reduce pollution from fossil fuels, and expand access to information such as the toxic release inventory that helps all communities know their risks.
The EPA’s AirData website provides access to air quality data collected from outdoor air monitors around the nation, a vital source of information for communities and researchers.
The EPA’s Brownfields grant programs helps communities around the country to safely clean up and reuse properties contaminated by pollutants and hazardous wastes. These type of actions have helped revitalize neighborhoods and foster thriving communities in places once considered “blighted.”
These are just a few examples of the valuable work the EPA does. There’s a lot more work to do to continue our progress on cleaning up our air and water, particularly in low-income communities, communities of color, and tribal communities—which bear a disproportionate burden of pollution from fossil fuels and industrial sources. There’s always room for improvement, including in beefing up enforcement of existing laws.
But there is no good reason to undertake drastic measures to undermine the fundamental work of the agency, except to pander to the interests of polluting industries that care more about their bottom line than the costs they are imposing on society at large.
Health vs. economic growth is a false choice
We shouldn’t have to choose between our health and a thriving economy—and past experience shows we don’t need to. For example, the data show that over a 20-year period from 1990 to 2010 the Clean Air Act helped drive down total emissions of the six major air pollutants by more than 40 percent while GDP grew more than 64 percent.
In fact, if we act in a short-sighted way and reduce commonsense safeguards, we will undermine future economic growth and have to divert more and more resources to dealing with health problems and cleaning up environmental harms.
We can and should reduce pollution in a fair way that integrates economic prosperity and a cleaner, healthier environment. Americans deserve no less.
Using science and economics to tackle pollution
The EPA’s work is informed by robust science. For example, in setting pollution standards the EPA must take into account what the latest medical studies show about the impacts of pollutants like ozone or mercury on human health. Regulations are also informed by the latest science on cost-effective pollution control technologies and practices.
And for many pollutants the EPA must also do a cost-benefit analysis to ensure that the standards are being set in a way that takes into account the costs of pollution controls relative to the public health benefits. These types of cost-benefit analyses have been a mainstay of regulatory policy dating back to the Reagan Administration, and use very standard mainstream economic methods.
Of course, for toxic pollutants that pose an acute risk to human health, such as mercury, standards are set based on public health criteria as the law requires.
Additionally, the EPA administrator regularly solicits expert opinions from independent scientists and experts, including through the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) and the Science Advisory Board (SAB), both of which were created under direction from Congress in the late 1970s. The CASAC has weighed in on issues such as the appropriate setting of ozone standards and standards for nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides. The SAB has been tapped to provide input on several key issues including the economy-wide modeling of the benefits and costs of environmental regulation and a review of the impacts of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas on drinking water.
What’s your plan for clean air and water, President Trump?
Setting smart cost-effective public health standards has helped improve our air and water, drive innovation in clean technologies, and allowed robust economic growth to continue alongside. Let’s not turn back the clock on progress, putting our kids at risk of breathing dirtier air or drinking unsafe water.
President Trump, what’s your plan to protect our children from pollution?
The suit alleges that air pollution from “upwind” states blows into “downwind” states like New York, contributing to dangerous ozone standard violations.
Elevated levels of smog can cause a host of significant health effects, including coughing, throat irritation, lung tissue damage, and the aggravation of existing medical conditions, such as asthma, bronchitis, heart disease, and emphysema.
Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont have signed onto the lawsuit with New York.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a statement:
“States upwind of New York that don’t take adequate responsibility for their pollution shift the cost and public health burdens of this pollution onto New Yorkers. Our coalition has waited almost three years for EPA to decide on whether it will use its legal authority to require upwind states to stem their contribution to the smog pollution. As we have waited, the health of millions of New Yorkers has continued to be threatened. Today, we are suing to force long-overdue action by EPA on this important petition.”
Eleven northeastern states—Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont—and the District of Columbia are currently part of an “Ozone Transport Region,” a designation that requires them to implement smog-reduction policies.
The lawsuit seeks to add Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina to the Ozone Transport Region.
New York actually submitted a petition asking EPA to add the nine states in December 2013. The Clean Air Act requires action on such a petition within 18 months, but the Agency has yet to issue a decision. As a consequence, New York filed the lawsuit, demanding EPA provide for public notice and comment on the states’ petition and to approve or disapprove the petition, after considering public comment.
A spokesperson has said the EPA will review the petition and respond.
When we last checked in at the Red Hook Ball Fields this past May, four baseball fields had been closed due to high levels of lead found in the soil. Environmental Protection Agency officials were awaiting the results of additional soil tests conducted on other fields at the popular park.
The results of those tests are now in, and it appears the list of field closures will not be growing.
What Do the New Samples Tell Us?
In April 2015, the EPA collected soil samples from Ball Field 9, Soccer Fields 1, 2 and 6 and surrounding areas within Red Hook Park.
The purpose was to determine if any of these fields contain lead from the historic Columbia facility, which operated in the 1920s and 1930s.
According to the EPA,
“The results showed that lead levels at these four fields are much lower than those at Ball Fields 5, 6, 7 and 8, which were closed due to lead contamination from the Columbia facility. Lead levels at Ball Field 9 and Soccer Fields 1, 2 and 6 are not an immediate health concern and closure of these fields is not required at this time.”
While no additional fields will be closed, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation will close some areas around Soccer Field 1 as a precaution.
There will also be clean-up at these four fields in the future due to high levels of lead “several inches below the surface.”
NYC Parks and the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene will be sampling soil in the remaining areas of the park (Soccer Field 3, and Ball Fields 1, 2, 3 and 4 and the surrounding areas) in Fall 2015.
Get More Details at This Meeting
You can learn more about the recent test results and the plan for clean-up throughout the park by attending this public meeting:
Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015
6:30 PM – 9:00 PM
Miccio Center Gymnasium
110 West 9th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11231
What’s The Plan for Clean-Up?
In terms of clean-up, much of the process will be conducted by NYC Parks under EPA oversight. Because it is such a large project, officials estimate that planning for and engineering the cleanup will take more than a year.
For ball fields 5-9, NYC Parks will first remove all park features such as fencing, curbing and other structures. A layer of plastic sheeting will be added to the fields, and then covered with one foot of clean soil. The baseball diamonds, grass cover, fencing, walkways, and associated structures will then be reinstalled.
According to the EPA,
“Controls will be put in place to make sure the public is not exposed to any contaminants during construction. This cleanup method will permanently eliminate public contact with contaminants by isolating them under the plastic sheeting and one foot of clean soil. This will also serve to prevent any future spread of contaminated soils from these ball fields.”
As for soccer fields 1, 2, and 6, NYC Parks is in the process of planning their renovation, including securing funding, setting a time frame and choosing a method, which may include installation of artificial turf.
Any actions for the remaining areas of the park, including soccer field 3 and ball fields 1 through 4, will be determined once sampling results come back.
Four baseball fields at the popular Red Hook Park in Brooklyn have been closed due to unsafe levels of lead found in the soil. Recent tests conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency have shown concentrations of the neurotoxin, which is especially harmful to children, at four to nine times the EPA’s screening level for park settings.
The fields will remain closed to the public until a thorough cleanup and remediation plan has been determined and executed. EPA officials indicate that this could take more than a year.
But for many regular users of Red Hook Park, questions linger, especially around testing performed by the city’s parks department more than two years ago—the results of which showed the park to be safe. Many are wondering why their children were allowed to continue playing in lead-contaminated soil for two years before federal and state agencies were alerted.
The news was delivered at a public meeting on Monday at the Miccio Center Gymnasium in Red Hook, to an audience of approximately 40 people. The bulk of the crowd appeared to be comprised of city or agency employees, though a handful of park goers and baseball coaches were present.
“Community engagement and strong collaboration with city, state and federal agencies is essential,” said Velázquez, in reference to the cleanup of Red Hook Park. But, she continued, “I would like to call your attention to the fact that many of those who use the ball fields are not here. We need to do a better job at bringing the information to them.”
Was Previous Testing Inadequate?
At the start of the meeting, Margaret Gregor, On-Site Coordinator for the EPA, presented a short history of the ball fields and the agency’s investigation, which began in late 2014. She also noted that the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation had previously tested the fields for lead some three years ago, independent of the EPA.
This raised questions from the audience about the adequacy and accuracy of the parks department testing.
The very first round of soil tests conducted by the EPA, in October of last year, indicated high levels of lead throughout the fields, suggesting that perhaps actions taken by the parks department in 2012 did not fully address the contamination. In fact, the EPA found levels worrisome enough to warrant more in-depth testing and, according to Gregor, “removal action…in the long term.”
Testing again in March of this year—153 samples from more than 29 locations—found lead at even higher levels, causing the EPA to immediately require the closure of ball fields #5-8 until cleanup could occur.
When asked about the city parks department’s handling of the lead testing in 2012, Borough Commissioner Kevin Jeffrey stated that the findings from 2012 “mirrored and were comparable to the first set of EPA findings in October” but he did not explain why further testing or more in-depth clean-up (like that suggested by the EPA in October) were not ordered.
Gregor stated that the parks department action in 2012 was “a helpful remedy” but stopped short of calling it adequate.
Should You (or Your Kids) Get Tested?
Considering the toxicity of lead for children, and how intensively the fields are used for sports leagues throughout the year, residents at Monday’s meeting expressed concern over the health of children using the park.
Ian Younge, President of the SAYO Grays baseball league, spoke up: “I’m truly concerned, because kids leave this field head-to-toe covered in dirt. In their ears, in their hats, in their socks, and no one can give me clear and cut answers. We need to be safe rather than sorry.”
Maureen Little, representing the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said the decision to get kids tested for blood lead levels was “a judgement call,” suggesting that if parents or coaches were concerned, they should call their physician.
“Although it’s definitely a possibility that they could have elevated lead due to exposure, it’s not a definite thing,” she stated. If residents do not have a family doctor or cannot afford the test, the Health Department can recommend clinics that will provide the test for free or on a sliding scale (call (646) 632-6023 or 311 for more information).
Lead is a toxic metal which can cause harmful health effects, particularly in children. According to the EPA, “exposure to lead in soil can occur when children play in the dirt and put their hands or dusty toys in their mouths.” Lead can also enter the body by breathing or swallowing dust.
The effects of lead poisoning are difficult to pinpoint because it often builds slowly over time. However, the National Institute of Health notes that “lead is much more harmful to children than adults because it can affect children’s developing nerves and brains.”
Countdown to Cleanup
Cleanup of the Red Hook ball fields will take more than a year, according to federal and city officials. “We don’t have a time frame yet because we don’t have a design,” said Gregor.
The EPA is proposing a “capping” method, which would involve placing a permeable fabric layer over the ground and adding a foot of clean soil on top of the fields. No soil would be excavated or otherwise removed.
Several of the baseball league representatives expressed concern over this method, indicating the importance of community involvement in any remediation plans.
One coach who has played at Red Hook Park for 15 years noted that “the pitcher’s mound and home plate area, where people dig their feet in and kick dirt out, those holes go way further than a foot.”
Younge agreed: “With the raking we do to get the fields ready for the kids, one foot is a joke. I mean, we go much further down than one foot. We lose a lot of soil all year long.”
Officials indicated an interest in community input during the design process, stating that “there is definitely going to be an opportunity for the community to weigh in.”
Natalie Loney, EPA Community Involvement Coordinator, reassured the audience that “we are experts on remediation, but this community is an expert on Red Hook. So we want to make sure we take what you have and put it in combination with our expertise to come out with the best solution.”
She explained that the community would be notified about additional meetings and announcements through emails and direct mail, and by partnering with city and state agencies. There is currently no signage at the park indicating the reason for its closure.
Audience members also suggested that the EPA reach out to Community Board 6, and to consider sending home flyers with school children.
Updates for this project will be posted on the EPA’s website; community members can also join an email list on that page.
In addition, the EPA is awaiting the results of soil tests conducted on fields downwind from the historic smelter, including: the single ball field on Bay Street (#9), the two soccer fields at the intersection of Bay and Clinton Streets (#2 and #6), and the picnic areas surrounding the turf field (#1) along Bay Street.
Results are expected in early June, and will help the EPA determine whether additional cleanup actions will be required.
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.
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:
Range of Detections (ppm)
240 – 980
770 – 2,800
760 – 5,700
390 – 2,600
130 – 2,600
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.”