Superfund Status Sought for Queens Industrial Site

The New York Times


October 30, 2013

City, state and federal agencies have long known that an industrial site in Ridgewood, Queens, contained radioactive material. The location, currently home to an auto repair shop, a construction firm, a warehouse and a deli, was once used by the Wolff-Alport Chemical Company, which sold thorium to the federal government for research on atomic bombs.

Until recently, officials considered the contamination level low enough not to be of concern. But over time, regulations changed, and inspectors began making repeat visits to the site, conducting surveys of radiation levels. The latest comprehensive federal study, released in February 2012, found levels significant enough to conclude that “workers at the auto body shop and pedestrians who frequently use the sidewalks at this location may have an elevated risk of cancer.”

After a year of assessing the results of the 2012 report and conducting additional testing, government agencies determined longer-term cleanup measures would be needed.

With that, the site will soon be considered for Superfund status, the Environmental Protection Agency said.

The Wolff-Alport Chemical Company was, for three decades, a supplier of rare earth metals, the agency said in its report. The company dumped thorium and some uranium into the sewer system as waste byproducts until 1947, when the Atomic Energy Commission, the successor of the Manhattan Project, began buying thorium for research, according to government documents.

Stephen I. Schwartz, editor of the The Nonproliferation Review, a journal on nuclear weapons, said the Manhattan Project and ensuing research left contamination sites around the country, but most fall under the Department of Energy’s purview and have been addressed. A sprawling site in Hanford, Wash., is still under remediation.

In Queens, the owners of the auto repair shop and the construction firm said no mention of the possible radioactive contamination was made when they began renting their spaces. The auto repair shop moved in 14 years ago; the construction firm moved in six years ago.

The nondescript building sits along the border with Bushwick, Brooklyn, near Long Island Rail Road tracks. Residential homes line nearby streets, and a day care center and a public school sit two blocks away. An agency representative said these locations did not show high levels of radiation.

“We just found out about a year ago,” said Silvio Hernandez, the owner of the construction company. “I heard it’s not dangerous unless you spend 20 hours a day inside here. They said 40, 50 years out, maybe a problem, but you have more chance to be hit by a bus — that’s what they explained to us.”

Dr. David Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University Medical Center, compares the auto repair shop workers’ annual exposure to a medical CT scan or about 200 chest X-rays.

“You wouldn’t voluntarily have a CT scan each year,” Dr. Brenner said. “No one working there should change jobs, but we don’t want anyone to have more radiation than they have to, so it should be cleaned up.”

Rafael Collado manages the Jarabacoa Deli next door to the former Wolff-Alport site, and has worked there nearly every day for four years.

“I don’t worry, because I don’t know exactly how big is the danger,” he said. “If they tell me it’s bad, I’ll be worried.”

Property records list the ice manufacturer Arctic Glacier U.S.A. as the owner of two of the spaces in the building, and a company called LPL Properties as the owner of the third, where the auto repair shop now stands. Andy Gravener, a vice president of Arctic Glacier, said the company had no comment on the matter. Calls to LPL Properties’ listed chief executive, Mary Piccolo, were not returned.

Eric Daly, the environmental agency’s on-site coordinator, said his team was on track to finish installing lead and steel plates by mid-December that would block most of the radiation beaming up from the ground.

A more extensive cleanup, like removing the contaminated topsoil under the building, would require designation on the National Priorities List — a Superfund law program that addresses the country’s most serious hazardous waste sites.

A letter dated Aug. 15 that was obtained by The New York Times requests the site’s nomination to the list. The letter, from Joe Martens, the commissioner of the State Department of Environmental Conservation, says that a Superfund designation “will bring a permanent remedy for this site that otherwise might not be realized, certainly in the near term.”

The move does not guarantee official Superfund site status, but it is “unlikely that the E.P.A. would not propose a site to the N.P.L. after having received a letter from the corresponding state,” said Elias Rodriguez, an agency spokesman.

But the designation is not guaranteed. “You’ve got thousands of sites that want to go ‘Super’ because you have federal expertise and resources,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “But it doesn’t mean you get it.”

If the site is added to the list, money from the strapped government program could be slow to follow; actions taken will depend on the results of detailed study. A radioactive waste Superfund site in New Jersey waited three years before a $33.8 million cleanup plan was selected, and an additional two years before it began.

The Wolff-Alport site would be New York City’s third active Superfund site, joining the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek. It would be the city’s second radioactive Superfund site since the law was enacted in 1980. The first, a chemical company in Woodside, Queens, was remediated in 1989 and is no longer a risk, according to the environmental agency.