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 closure does not impact the portion of the park that houses the Red Hook food vendors.)

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.

A new fence constructed at the Red Hook ball fields. Photo credit: Emily Manley via NYER.

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.

Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez and Councilman Carlos Menchaca also attended the meeting.

“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.

In 2012, the department conducted lead testing at the park, prompted by a USA Today report that identified field #7 as a historic smelting factory site. Test results indicated lead levels that were elevated, but the agency determined risk of public exposure was “minimal” and “no further remedial actions” were necessary.

Parks officials did increase grass cover and paved over a small area near the Henry Street entrance, but additional, follow-up lead testing was not performed. The EPA was not notified.

Two years later, in 2014, EPA was referred to the site by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

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.

EPA official taking soil samples in Red Hook Park in March 2015. Photo via EPA.
Aerial view of Red Hook Park. Yellow dots indicate March 2015 EPA soil sampling locations. Image via EPA.

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.

Red Hook Youth Baseball League game on field #5. Photo credit: New York Juvenile Justice Corps.

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.”

The ball fields are closed because of lead contamination, but these signs say otherwise. Photo credit: Emily Manley via NYER.

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.

Yellow dots indicate additional sample sites taken by the EPA in April. Results will be available in June. Image via EPA.

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.