BROOKLYN, NY-- Last summer, Patrick Keefe was pushing his 18-month old son on the swings at a playground in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, when he spotted a 30-foot wall of dust moving towards him and his child from a demolition site across the street.
“I grabbed my kid and ran out of there because I didn’t know what was in that dust, and I know it’s a superfund site,” said Keefe, 39, who lives a block away.
The demolition site, a sludge tank that stored wastewater until last year, and Greenpoint Playground sit across the street from NuHart & Co. Inc., a factory that produced vinyl siding for six decades until it went defunct in 2004. That same year, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) found the soil around NuHart to be contaminated with tens of thousands of gallons of toxic industrial chemicals.
New York State has nearly 2,500 of these old industrial sites with varying levels of contamination on record. They’re called “superfund” sites, named after the federal program passed in 1980 empowering the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the site’s state environmental agency to determine how much environmental contamination occurred and how much of a risk it poses to the public and the environment.
Last year, Manhattan-based Dupont Street Developers purchased the property with plans to build a luxury high rise on the heavily polluted site. Greenpoint residents who have seen other builders do shoddy construction and cleanup say they don’t trust the new owners of the NuHart factory.
In October, the company allowed a rave to be held at the superfund site. New York City Fire Department cancelled the event at the last minute, citing safety issues. Dupont Street Developers apologized, but community residents remain wary.
“I wouldn’t say I trusted them ever, certainly now it seems like a company that’s interested in profit and there’s no reason for them to be concerned about the community members living there right now,” resident Sarah Balistreri, 36, said.
Despite community distrust, representative for the developer Yi Han says the developer is just as interested in a thorough, multi-step and transparent superfund cleanup process.
“We value being open,” Yi said. “We have no intention of hiding anything.”
At numerous community meetings in recent months, the developer, the city councilman’s office, the DEC, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and other agencies have tried to assuage the residents’ collective fear of an unsafe cleanup plan.
“We’re going to get as much information as we can to put together a plan that’s going to take care of this contamination,” said Jane O’Connell of the DEC.
Arranged community meetings serve as the official opportunity for residents to comment on agency updates or ask representatives of the developer, agencies or city councilman’s office about the plan at every stage of the cleanup. However, the nature of the superfund cleanups and threat of chemical exposure are difficult to understand, and so are the terms used to describe them. Officials and residents at times speak over each other during Q&A sessions. Keefe, who has attended some meetings, said they are not very effective.
“Everyone’s angry, everyone’s scared, everyone’s protective of their domain, there’s a lot of finger-pointing,” he said of residents and agency reps.
But residents keep coming back with open ears and no-nonsense attitudes, ready and determined to be heard.
“I would say that it is somewhat unique to Greenpoint,” said Mike Schade of Neighbors Allied for Good Growth. The local activist said environmental activism was born from a long history of environmental injustice in Greenpoint at the hands of industry.
Activism and awareness aside, concerned residents do not have a comfortable guarantee that they are safe from the superfund at any given moment, leaving them struggling to come to terms with living in the shadow of a superfund site.
“It makes me feel angry and powerless,” Keefe said. “We’re living in it. There’s only so much that you can do to not be exposed.”
A year after Patrick Keefe dashed out of the Greenpoint Playground clutching his son, a local advocacy group, Neighbors Allied for Good Growth, and the office of Greenpoint’s councilmember Stephen Levin, held a community meeting in July at the senior center across the street from NuHart.
It was one of the first opportunities for residents to share their concerns and to learn about the dangers trapped below the ground at the superfund site. One person they voiced their cleanup concerns to was geologist Michael Roux of Roux & Associates, the developer’s environmental consultant.
One of the addressed concerns was NuHart’s building timeline. Roux told the few dozen people in attendance that demolition of the property would happen as quickly as possible.
Concerned at his answer, some residents then asked about the chemicals themselves, and if a cleanup of chemicals would occur first.
Roux tried to reassure residents that the developer would not build on NuHart until the state agencies approved.
“We’re not going to do any development of these sites without a lot of coordination with city and the state. Okay?” Roux replied.
Superfund law requires the DEC to oversee the developer through the site cleanup, a process called “remediation.” DEC had already done the first step of the superfund process: confirm that NuHart is a superfund site.
Next, a DEC-approved environmental lab group hired by the developer conducts an array of tests: testing for expected and unexpected contaminants, plastic-making chemicals once used on-site, and asbestos minerals found on the roof of the site’s northeast corner. The tests inform the “Remedial Investigation” report, the DEC’s interpretation of the type of threat the contaminants pose for the community, and the “Feasibility Study,” a list of ideas on how to remove the contamination from the soil. It is only after analysis of these studies that a cleanup plan is made and executed, a process that can take months to years.
The chemicals contaminating NuHart are trapped 10 to 12 feet underground, a small source of comfort for community members. However, the possibility of chemicals going airborne during excavation quickly trumps that solace. Mixed responses from the DEC and developer do not help.
When a young mother asked Roux what would be done to keep dust from scattering toxins onto their homes or the playground across the street-- a situation similar to the one that caused Patrick Keefe to flee the park with his child last summer--Jane O’Connell from the DEC suggested an enclosed tent would be built over digging sites. Roux argued against the precaution.
“You may argue all you want,” O’Connell countered. “They might not be your decisions.”
“It might not be my decision,” Roux conceded.
The DEC’s trumping power does not reassure everybody at the meeting that the job will be done well, however. Lifelong resident Laura Hofmann said she’s seen mishandling of other sites the community won’t let the same thing happen with the NuHart site.
“I’m prepared to take a couple of weeks off my vacation just to parade back and forth in front of that building when it’s happening,” she said.
Then Hofmann asked what everyone seemed to wonder at that point: could they be guaranteed the agencies and the developer would do whatever it took to protect them?
“I really need to hear from the regulators that that’s something in addition to the norm is going to happen at this site when it’s remediated,” Hofmann said. “Is that going to happen?”
“We hear your concerns and we’ve heard your concerns on the other side,” O’Connell said, “so we’re going to make sure that we have all the bells and whistles in place of the site, make sure that the community is protected during the digs.”
Ten to twelve feet underneath NuHart sits two massive pools of chemicals. These chemicals are at the root of every resident’s exposure fear: the somewhat mobile pools of hazardous waste sitting above the groundwater that have to — one way or another — be dug up.
One is a pool of phthalates, a thick, gooey compound with the consistency of molasses. Phthalates are used ubiquitously in plastic manufacturing to make plastic products more bendable. Bisphenol A, more commonly known as BPA, is a example of a phthalate. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned BPA from baby and children’s bottles in 2010 because of a correlation between low doses of phthalates and hormone disruption in young children, when ingested.
Phthalates are fairly ubiquitous: they’re used in shampoo bottles, nail polish, toys and soaps. Epidemiologist Pam Factor-Litvak at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health said that phthalates are known endocrine disruptors. Phthalates have also been associated with cognition and behavioral issues in children. Factor-Litvak also said that while phthalate research is fairly young--about 15 years old— scientists studying the correlation between phthalates and these conditions have tried to rule everything else out.
“We’ve measured a lot of other contaminants, a lot of sociodemographic characteristics, all that might explain away the association… and they don’t,” she said.
The other toxin chemical under the superfund site is trichloroethylene (TCE). It is an industrial solvent historically used as an alternative to chloroform and as a dry cleaning solvent. When inhaled, it causes headaches and dizziness. De Fur said to imagine filling a gas can and getting “too much of a whiff.” TCE is linked with increased incidence of autoimmune diseases and abnormal fetal development.
Combined, an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 gallons of phthalates and TCE form two underground pools called plumes. But the plumes couldn’t be more different, de Fur said. The phthalate plume is dense and sticky; the TCE plume is more volatile, changing easily from liquid to gas. This quality makes it easier to rise from the solid ground to the surface.
Though it hasn’t been made clear how much exposure the community faces now, de Fur said that the data suggests that the TCE plume poses the most relevant risk to Greenpointers. That’s because the vapors can rise from the ground and get trapped in one’s house.
“There are chemicals that we know vaporize and they can get into your house and they can keep an ongoing, low-level exposure in you,” says de Fur. “It can affect all these different organ systems, but the key is the duration and the magnitude of how much you breathe.”
NuHart sits right in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Houses and a senior home line the south side of NuHart, two new commercial buildings run along its north side. More houses stand east of it, and to the west, between it and the East River, sits a children’s playground.
Peter de Fur, the environmental scientist hired through an EPA technical assistance grant to consultant the Greenpoint community, says this is generally uncommon for industrial factories, much less so for ones designated as superfund sites.
“Greenpoint has its unique features because it’s right in a downtown city, mixed residential/ commercial area at the waterfront,” de Fur said.
De Fur and his team based in Richmond, VA; Environmental Stewardship Concepts, have consulted on other superfund projects in the northeast, northwest and the south. He said superfunds are complicated sites to clean up, and even though Greenpoint has proactive community involvement, they, like other superfund communities, will not likely see NuHart as clean as they would like.
“Just like all other communities, they’re also going to grapple with the fact that superfund sites are inherently problematic,” he said.
De Fur said most chemical spills on a superfund site are accidental—like from a leaky tank—or careless. No one knows for sure when NuHart’s chemical contamination occurred or if it was accidental or careless. (de Fur and the DEC postulate that tanks on the site containing these chemicals leaked the chemicals into the soil of the site, which created the plumes). The DEC has to approximate where it all is by looking at data from wells surrounding the site.
But what de Fur does know, however, is that the damage at NuHart won’t be completely undone.
“You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube once it’s out,” he said. “That’s a real tough thing for the community to deal with.”
Environmental distrust runs deep in Greenpoint, almost as deep as its reputation as an industrial haven. Ask 56-year-old Laura Hofmann, a lifelong resident who lives with her husband, Mike, a block away from NuHart on Dupont St. She said her parents who lived six blocks down on Java St., inhabited Greenpoint since the 1930s, a time when the industrial presence was more pronounced.
It was very much embedded in her upbringing. Industry was even a part of cultural references. She recalled a Standard Oil slogan from a TV advertisement her father would mimic in the car while driving over the Greenpoint Ave. Bridge.
“There were times when he would say ‘Put a tiger in your tank!’” she said, striking a fist against her chest with a smile at the memory. “And he would kind of make an exclamation and hit his chest. At the time, that was a slogan for [Standard Oil.] It was the early version of Exxon.”
Sitting at her dining room table with a cup of tea, Hofmann speaks slowly and articulately about her first experiences with local environmental pollution. She recalled an early memory of Newtown Creek, the estuary turned toxic by decades of waste dumping from factories, when her family was driving over the creek into Brooklyn one night.
“As children we would be sleeping in the back of the car, and the smell was so horrific that it was enough to wake you up,” Hofmann said.
Hofmann lived 10 blocks from the creek, and only about four blocks away from the Greenpoint incinerator which burned over 500 tons of garbage everyday. The sludge tank that stored wastewater solids for treatment sat about 7 blocks away from her home.
While Hofmann says the air quality now has vastly improved, the source of the wretched smell hasn’t been completely dealt with. Newtown Creek’s heavy industrial use in the 1800s and 1900s has made it a federal superfund site and one of the most polluted sites in the country. But kids, she said, including her husband, still swam in the creek as kids and teens.
In 1978, an oil refinery leaked between 17 to 30 million gallons of petroleum and crude oil into Newtown Creek. The Greenpoint oil spill became the third largest oil spill in US history. Oil soaked into the land took years to remove from the ground and for some time incited fear of health problems from vapor exposure. A longstanding lawsuit led to the community receiving a settlement of $19.5 million towards nonprofit environmental cleanup initiatives in the neighborhood in 2013.
She said she remembered when NuHart was functional. She said little white flakes would float from the factory onto her plants and air-conditioner, forming a gooey film.
“You could form it like kids putty,” she said, rubbing her palms together. “Later on we found out that it was most likely mold adhering with the phthalates coming out of the stacks.”
Hofmann blames all the industry pollution for a number of unexpected illnesses in her family.
She and her daughter were diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disorder. Her parents died of rare brain conditions. Her eldest son developed “an array of autoimmune disorders” and lost two babies not long after birth: one from abnormal, fatal swellings from a cyst-forming disorder called cystic hygroma, the other had a life-threatening edema from a condition called hydrops fetalis.
It made her keen on seeing a health study done in Greenpoint.
“For me, the health study thing is a big deal,” Hofmann said. “In my book it’s affected my health I’ve lost and all my family members have lost life and time: time going to the hospital, time going to visit babies in the hospital… time being diagnosed, time out of work, time out of school.”
None of the conditions have any known correlation with industrial chemicals like the ones at NuHart, but Hofmann thinks that without a health study of the community, there’s no way to know.
“You know how you have uranium glass and you need a black light to look at it? There’s a type of depression glass called ‘uranium glass’ and you need to look at it under a black light to see the glow. It’s like this community: you really need to look at it under a different light to get the true feeling and the true value of what’s going on,” Hofmann said.
Hofmann and fellow resident Kim Massar, a writer for local blog Greenpointers, submitted a Department of Health grant proposal to get a health study on their neighborhood funded. But it was never approved.
Peter de Fur, an environmental consultant on superfund sites, said health studies around superfunds do happen but not very often. That’s because there are rarely enough people to study. A “small number of people,” de Fur said of the study standards, was “a few hundred” affected people. Many years ago, de Fur put in a grant proposal to study a group of workers and their families who had been affected by a chemical spill.
“When the funding agency reviewed our proposal, they said, ‘you know this is great, you’ve got everything in place…. Everything’s right, but we can’t fund it because there aren’t enough people,’” he said.
That community was larger than Greenpoint’s, de Fur said, and a small test population makes it hard to tell if there’s a correlation between the suspected health issue and the superfund contaminants.
Hofmann blames industry pollution, convinced her family and her health has been compromised by industry in Greenpoint, including NuHart, but also fears that if NuHart’s remediation isn’t done with the utmost of safety, then a new generation of people--particularly newcomers to Greenpoint-- will risk exposure as well.
“I’m afraid of that,” she said. “People in this area are going to get exposed all over again and in a different way.”
When Patrick Keefe thinks back to when he and his wife and he bought their house on Eagle Street four years ago, he muses on why he became enchanted with Greenpoint. Hipsters hadn’t invaded it like they did in nearby Williamsburg, where he lived previously. That and developers didn’t seem as interested in the area.
“We picked Greenpoint because it was not Williamsburg,” he said. “It was a little bit backwater and we were hoping it would stay that way.”
But in fact, the trend towards development in Greenpoint started a decade ago. In 2005, New York City’s city planning department announced the conversion of 176 acres of industrial land to commercial and residential land in Greenpoint and Williamsburg. A year later, city planning approved a waterfront development project to make the East River waterfront along North Brooklyn more accessible to the public and residential development. The waterfront plan is responsible for the sludge tank demolition that caused the plume of dust advancing on the playground that summer Keefe remembers by the swings.
The community and Keefe are waiting to hear about cleanup options in spring 2016. He said with as multifaceted a case as NuHart is, he still doesn’t believe everything will be done safely. He just doesn’t feel empowered to change NuHart’s course.
“You can’t fight progress or stop progress. It’s going to happen,” he said.
Keefe takes his son back to Greenpoint Playground sometimes. He said they still go on days it is not too dusty.
Additional reporting by Aaron Simon