Game Over: Lead Contamination Forces Closure of Popular Red Hook Ball Fields

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.

EPA Testing Red Hook Ball Fields for Lead Contamination

Key Points:

  • The EPA is testing for lead contamination at the popular Red Hook ball fields.
  • A smelting factory operated at the site of field #7 through the 1930s.
  • Slightly elevated levels of lead have also been found near the Red Hook Houses.
  • The Red Hook ball fields will open according to schedule; park-goers encouraged to wash hands and shoes after visiting.


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.

Site map showing ball fields, park boundary, and location of former smelting facility. Map via EPA.

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

Members of the Red Hook Youth Baseball League play on one of the fields contaminated by lead. Photo via New York Juvenile Justice Corps

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

The Red Hook Houses are the largest housing development in Brooklyn. Photo credit: David Al-Ibrahim/AIGA.

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

Spectators watch a soccer game at the Red Hook ball fields. Photo credit: Carl Collins/Creative Commons.

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.”

It’s a Fish-stery: Carp Go Belly-Up in Queens Lake

UPDATE: April 2, 2015
In December, we reported on this mystery fish kill in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. At the time, NYC Parks had conducted some preliminary testing, but results were not yet released. We promised to follow-up later in the spring. Here’s what we found.

According to NYC Parks, no additional fish kills have been witnessed in Flushing Meadows. Pathology tests conducted on several fish were inconclusive; nothing notable was found in water samples from Willow Lake.

Marit Larson, Director of Wetlands and Riparian Restoration for NYC Parks, told NYER:
“To better understand what caused these incidents, we have consulted extensively with NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation and Brooklyn College. We have no clear answer at this time, but we believe that low dissolved oxygen may have played a factor.

Fish kills can have multiple causes and contributing factors. We will have one water quality sensor collecting data on dissolved oxygen, salinity and temperature in both Meadow and Willow Lakes over a portion of the summer, which we hope will give us some idea of the dissolved oxygen dynamics and stressor that could impact fish. In the mean time, we are continuing to review any land management practices around the Lake that may be impacting conditions.”

Something is killing fish in the waters of Willow Lake, but no one, including the Parks Department, seems to know exactly what it might be.

Since late October, park-goers and park officials have reported dozens of dead fish lining the shores of the 45-acre lake located in the southern portion of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. The Daily News reported seeing large numbers as recently as November 21, on both on the western edge of the lake near the walking bridge, and by the bird blind on the eastern side.

Spokeswoman for the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation Meghan Lalor told NYER that “many dead fish of several species were observed, including gizzard shad, American eels, white perch, and carp.”

Officials have been looking into this issue with several agencies, as well as limnologists (who study inland waters like lakes and streams) and fisheries experts. Lalor noted that fish kills have happened before at Willow Lake, and suggested that the cause may be “due to a number of different factors, from low dissolved oxygen to temperature to algae.”

“Evaluation is ongoing, hopefully we will have a definite answer within a few weeks,” said Lalor.

Something Fishy?

Willow Lake Preserve gate. Photo credit: Matt Green/Creative Commons.

Originally created in 1939 for the New York World’s Fair, Willow Lake is a manmade waterbody flanked by the 106-acre Willow Lake Preserve. In recent years, the Parks Department has attempted to revitalize the area by transforming it into a wildlife preserve with hiking trails.

Part of this plan includes removing 14 acres of invasive species using herbicidal chemicals—some park goers suspect this may be the cause behind the recent aquatic casualties.

“I spotted a sign that they were spraying pesticide so I stayed away from there,” local resident Stan Zompakos told the Daily News. “The week after that I went to the bird blind and saw a lot of fish that had died.”

Zompakos photographed signs in the area that indicated the herbicide Accord XRT II had been applied. This Material Data Safety Sheet from Dow Chemical describes the chemical as “Highly toxic to fish and/or other aquatic organisms.”

When asked about the herbicide application, Lalor responded: “We applied the herbicide by hand to targeted upland areas and specific invasive species. There was a 40-foot buffer between where that was applied and the lake – as you can see at the site the phragmites surrounding the lake remain.”

She added, “Although it is unlikely that this would have caused the fish kills, we are looking at all possible causes.”

Willow Lake is not open for recreational fishing.

NYER plans to follow up with the Parks Department once results are in. Stay tuned.

It Ain’t Easy Being a Tree in NYC

In 2007, then-mayor Michael Bloomberg launched the MillionTreesNYC Initiative, an ambitious plan to “plant and care for one million new trees across the City’s five boroughs over the next decade.”

Seven years in, the initiative is ahead of schedule: 800,000 trees have been planted, and the Parks Department expects to plant the millionth tree by the end of next year.

But have you ever wondered how many of those trees actually survive into adulthood? After all, life on the hard streets of New York City is, well, pretty hard.

Today WNYC published a detailed look at the health and mortality of New York City street trees. Overall, they found that of trees planted in spring of 2011, 6.2 percent of them did not live. And:

Some neighborhoods saw even higher mortality rates, such as Greenpoint-Williamsburg (22.3 percent) and Sheepshead Bay (21 percent), both in Brooklyn. Staten Island and the Rockaways also show high death rates, though those areas were subject to the saltwater from Sandy’s storm surge in October 2012.

While Parks officials and foresters caution that these rates are normal (albeit on the high side of normal), there is concern among some that the City has not invested enough in the management and upkeep of the trees once planted.

Robert Young, an assistant professor at the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin told WNYC:

“They built the acquisition of trees into the capital budget, but not the stewardship of trees,” Young said. “When you build something, you have to take care of it.”

Photo credit: MillionTreesNYC
Photo credit: MillionTreesNYC

Indeed, the Parks Department is less than clear about who is ultimately responsible for the saplings once they are firmly in the ground. Landscape companies are supposed to water new trees regularly (though anecdotal evidence suggests this doesn’t always happen), but it seems the long-term care is up to residents.

New Yorkers are encouraged to join the MillionTrees Stewardship Core and attend free ”TreeLC” workshops to learn tree care basics. Those who pledge to “Adopt-a-Tree” receive a free watering kit and volunteer card. This interactive map shows where trees are located, and which are in dire need of care.

How are the street trees faring in your neighborhood?

A Tale of Two Cities and 1,900 Parks: NYC Has a New Parks Commissioner

Eighty days into his first term as mayor, Bill de Blasio has finally named a parks commissioner for New York City—and he went out of state to find him.

Mitchell Silver, Chief Planning and Development Officer of Raleigh, North Carolina, is no stranger to New York City, though: a Brooklyn native, Silver earned degrees at both Pratt Institute and Hunter College, and worked in the city’s planning department in the late 1980s.

De Blasio appointed Silver to oversee the city’s 1,900 parks and 29,000 acres of green space, with a focus that falls squarely in line with de Blasio’s now familiar “Tale of Two Cities” narrative. Silver is specifically tasked with addressing inequality in the city’s park system.

“No one is more qualified to usher in a new era of expanded access and sustainability than Mitchell Silver,” the mayor said in a press release.

Equity Mantle No Walk in the Park

The issue of “park equity” gained momentum in 2013, after State Senator Daniel L. Squadron introduced legislation that would force New York City’s thriving private parks conservancies to send 20 percent of their operating budgets to a fund for needier parks.

The era of privately funded park conservancies began after the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, which left many New York City parks in a state of deep disrepair.

When the city emerged from the worst of it in the early 80s, so also emerged privately funded parks conservancies, like the Central Park Conservancy, established to advocate and raise funds for individual New York City parks.

As the 1980s gentrification boom took hold, wealthy New Yorkers enjoyed being able to contribute directly to the park of their choosing, often located in their own neighborhoods and backyards.

While this is of tremendous benefit to the parks with wealthy patrons, what of the hundreds of other parks located in less-well-to-do neighborhoods?

City spending on parks maintenance is allocated by borough, but the majority of parks projects and improvements are funded through capital allocations from Council Members and Borough Presidents, rather than with Mayoral funding. This means that these projects are at the mercy of local city council members who control discretionary budgets—and who don’t always share park-based priorities. (New Yorkers for Parks has a great primer on this issue here.)

MacNeil Park on the northern tip of Queens received the lowest score in NY4P’s 2012 Report Card on Large Parks. Photo credit: Lizabeth Nieves
MacNeil Park on the northern tip of Queens received the lowest score in NY4P’s 2012 Report Card on Large Parks. Photo credit: Lizabeth Nieves

It’s not surprising that the leaders of these well-funded conservancies consider Squadron’s method to “level the playing field” a terrible idea—but so do many other parks advocates as well. Instead, they are encouraging a deeper discussion of how conservancies might help their poorer neighbors without siphoning off their own funding.

Holly Leicht, former executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, summed up her thoughts in an editorial last year: “Redirecting a percentage of their operating budgets toward a citywide fund would result in debilitating cuts to these parks’ maintenance staffs and programming. What’s more, the sum total of funds from such a tithe would not actually generate enough money to make meaningful improvements in other parks.”

De Blasio endorsed the bill during his campaign, but stopped short of reiterating his support during Silver’s appointment, instead referring to the idea as “creative.”

Silver declined to give a definitive answer on the proposal, stating instead that “the first step you want to find out is that you have legal authority to actually make a proposal like that happen. I’m going to start with a conversation, bring the conservancies to the table.”

Silver Up to the Task

While Silver has much on his plate, it appears that he has the chops needed to do the job. During his last stint in New York in the 1980s, he played a central role in formulating the ‘Harlem-on-the-River‘ plan, where he helped redesign a site originally pegged for a hotel development and turn it into a $20 million park.

“He is perfectly suited to look at the bigger picture and address park issues,” said Adrian Benepe, a senior official at the Trust for Public Land and a parks commissioner under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

Silver said when appointed, “This city’s parks, athletic fields and beaches all provide a unique, public space for education, physical exercise and recreation — and I look forward to expanding these opportunities to even more of New York’s residents. From Van Cortlandt Park to Coney Island Beach, every green space in this city deserves constant care and innovation—and I’m honored to lead the department as we pursue the Mayor’s vision for equal and expanded quality access to parkland in every neighborhood.”

Spring is Here: Plant a Tree in NYC! Or, Adopt!

New Yorkers have a way to improve local air quality, cool the city, and make the city more beautiful for all of us. They can join their neighbors in planting new trees, and caring for the ones here now!

The arrival of spring means that thousands of new trees will be planted on city streets, in public parks, and on private property.

MillionTreesNYC, which is managed by the city and the New York Restoration Project, is well on its way to planting a million trees by 2015, two-years ahead of schedule. The NYRP says that over 800,000 trees have already been planted in the five boroughs.

A public-private partnership, Million Trees NYC is part of PlaNYC, the long-term sustainability “blueprint” created by the Bloomberg administration.

Getting Involved

New Yorkers can get involved in many ways. Anyone who owns property -a home, business, non-profit, etc.- can obtain free trees from the New York Restoration Project, along with tips on how to care for them.

Property owners must plant the new trees on their property, not along city streets or in parks.

If you don’t own property, there are tens of thousands of trees that need love and attention. You can adopt a tree!

A Greener City

The NYRP reports that the city’s Department of Buildings has adopted two zoning requirements which “further MillionTreesNYC tree-planting goals”.

Every new surface parking lot constructed within the five boroughs must be planted with trees in order to “reduce the heat emitted from large asphalt and other types of surfacing”.

And any developer or builder of a new building must plant new street trees every 25 feet around the structure’s street frontage.

Cooling Us Down

In addition to absorbing CO2 emissions and other pollutants, and stormwater, trees literally make the city more liveable.

How much do trees help? Think about New York City’s blistering summers.

The federal EPA says that trees and vegetation “lower surface and air temperatures by providing shade and through evapotranspiration. Shaded surfaces, for example, may be 20–45°F cooler than the peak temperatures of unshaded materials.”