Brownfield Blues

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Lafayette Avenue rolls down off of the heights of Hunts Point, ending abruptly at the shores of the Bronx River. On a recent morning, the cloudy waters lapped at sunken tires and a submerged radiator. Once home to a fur-dyeing factory, these shores have been contaminated for decades. There are some signs of hope here. Newly planted saplings grow near the old factory, and a hand-painted mural on a nearby wall depicts how the community really sees this property: as a launching point rather than a dead end.

Until a few months ago, local residents were well on their way to getting what they want. Last September, The Point, a nonprofit community development group, bought the lot from the city for $525,000, with the help of a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. The plan: to build a 25,000 square-foot boathouse and center where visitors can learn about the local ecosystem, rent kayaks and research the area’s waterways.

There was one catch to the purchase, however. For the city Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to approve it, The Point had to assume sole responsibility for removing the hundreds of barrels of hazardous waste that had accumulated over roughly 70 years of industrial use, and to complete the cleanup within one month of the sale. Both JE Robert, the real estate holding firm that manages tax liens for the city and took over the property last summer after some mysterious fires blazed through the factory, and the former owner, Jacob Selechnik, were excused from any responsibility.

While The Point’s executive director, Paul Lipson, knew he was buying into a tough situation, particularly since the group had no experience with brownfield cleanup, he says the group had no choice–it was the only spot in the neighborhood fit for a boathouse. And he figured DEP would be helpful with the cleanup, since it seemed in the city’s interest to decontaminate the area.

He never expected the city’s environmental agency would bring such a straightforward cleanup project to a halt.

The trouble started just after October 25, the cleanup deadline. Lipson says he was certain that EcoSystems Strategies, the company hired to clean the site, had tested and removed all dangerous materials from the lot. The company carted away more than 260 55-gallon drums of hazardous salt solutions, oils and chemical powders, as well as 30 drums of nonhazardous materials, according to correspondence between The Point and DEP.

But The Point overlooked one crucial detail–its staff failed to file all the required paperwork with the city on time. For each of the five days the reports were overdue, DEP fined the group $5,000.

Their problems did not stop there. Two weeks later, inspectors from DEP uncovered two additional barrels of hazardous waste tucked away in a closet in the old factory. Lipson says his people removed them right away, but still, the city added another $50,000 in fines to The Point’s tab, for a grand total of $75,000.

While Lipson says he has no problem with the city enforcing the law, in this case, he says, the DEP is selectively picking on The Point rather than helping it fix up a decades-old blight in the South Bronx. The city has never come down hard on any of the previous owners to get the property fixed up, he adds.

“The poor schmuck nonprofit, which is us, is left to foot the bill for 50 years of pollution on that property,” he says. “Seventy-five thousand dollars could spell our doom as an organization, but even $30,000 would knock out our programming for the year.”

DEP spokesperson Charles Sturken says he’s sympathetic to The Point’s situation, but adds that the city is simply enforcing the rules. “We can’t bend the law for somebody just because they are a nonprofit,” he says.

Still, the process has infuriated Lipson, who at press time was scheduled to argue against the fines in a March 6 hearing before the DEP’s control board in Queens. Of course The Point supports environmental regulations and their enforcement, he says, but this particular case is an instance of bureaucratic abuse more than purposeful enforcement. The dangerous materials were removed according to a stringent schedule, and that, says Lipson, should have been the DEP’s primary concern following the June fires. In fact, he says the city should have pursued the removal before The Point even bought the property.

From at least one City Council member’s perspective, the city is making a real effort to do right by the neighborhood. “The city just needs to work towards developing a more effective brownfields policy,” says Nicholas Arture, a legislative analyst for Councilmember Jose Serrano, who represents Hunts Point. “There is a very steep learning curve, and some things need to be hashed out to ensure that things don’t happen like this in the future.” That said, he adds, this is the beginning of a new era for the DEP and the city’s brownfield cleanup programs. The DEP recently assembled a Brownfields Taskforce, and Mayor Bloomberg has made brownfield cleanup a high priority in his housing plan.

Still, while City Hall, along with officials from Albany, iron out a new strategy, The Point’s predicament has caught the attention of other local nonprofit managers, who are bewildered by the city’s contradictory actions and fear it could affect future cleanups. “They visit you and encourage you to participate, then they penalize you for being a participant, like some sort of sadomasochist,” says Carlos Padilla, director of the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition, which last year was talking with the city about cleaning up another polluted property in the South Bronx, near the Tiffany Street Pier in Hunts Point. “The DEP has sort of separated itself from the goodwill of the community in favor of just getting their job done.”

The net effect, say Lipson, Padilla, and Omar Freilla of the group Sustainable South Bronx, is that community development organizations are ultimately dissuaded from investing in environmental cleanup. “There is no current policy that enables that land to be cleaned up in any kind of effective manner,” says Freilla, whose organization is planning to develop a greenway public access strip along the Hunts Point waterfront.

As for The Point, if it is able to get the fines dismissed, it will continue with the cleanup, which Lipson estimates will cost more than $300,000. The group has to replace the contaminated topsoil, dispose of asbestos roofing and raze the shell of the remaining building.

“We don’t have a reserve fund. That’s the downside of nonprofits taking on projects like this,” Lipson says. “Maybe we shouldn’t be doing this in the first place. But who knew, that, God, the DEP might not be a partner on this?”

Abrahm Lustgarten is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.