The state’s environmental protection agency has discovered sediment from a portion of the Flushing River in Queens is contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals and is negotiating with the plot’s former owner Consolidated Edison to clean it up.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is drafting a consent order with Con Edison that would compel the company to remediate a quarter-acre of the riverbank south of Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing, agency spokesman Arturo Garcia-Costas said. Polychlorinated biphenyls, known as PCBs, were detected in “ecologically significant” levels in the river’s sediment, an agency report said.

The sliver of wetland is on the edge of a 13.6-acre parcel that was also contaminated, but in December it was certified as remediated following a $36 million cleanup project. The larger parcel is the site of a massive retail and commercial project called SkyView Parc being built by Muss Development of Forest Hills.
Con Edison began acquiring the site in 1923. By the 1950s the land bounded by College Point Blvd., the Flushing River, Roosevelt Ave. and 40th Road, was used mainly for the storage and maintenance of transformers that contained PCB oils. Industrial chemicals leeched into the subsurface and polluted the groundwater. As that water discharged into the river, PCBs became trapped in the sediment, according to DEC.

“Con Edison is investigating and will test what substances are there, and based on those findings we will develop a remediation plan with the state,” Con Edison spokesman Chris Olert said. The cost and time involved will be known after the plan is created, he said.

Robert Goldstein, general counsel for the environmental group Riverkeeper, said at one time PCBs were commonly used throughout the world in industrial uses. “They were engineered to resist heat and friction and so were useful in a range of machinery, notably in transformers,” said Goldstein. Many local waterways likely are contaminated, he says – “The question is how concentrated, and the greatest concentrations are going to be near the facilities that used and disposed of PCBs.”

The parcel, known as the Flushing Industrial Site, was sold to Muss Development in 1989, city deed records show. A spokesman for Muss did not respond to requests for comment.

An annual federal financial report filed by the utility in February said the cleanup costs were not known but could be high. “At this time, the company cannot estimate its liability for the investigation and cleanup of any PCB contamination that may have entered into the Flushing River from the site, but such liability may be substantial,” the company said in the financial report covering 2007.

The underwater area must be cleaned up before it can be used for a waterfront park, a DEC report said.

James Cervino, professor of marine biology at Pace University, said much of the river was polluted, but efforts such as the city Department of Environmental Protection’s sewage treatment plant in neighboring College Point have improved it (as untreated wastewater had been going into the river before). He called on private companies to pitch in.

“It is companies like Con Ed that need to clean up their act and get the PCBs out of the river,” Cervino said.

Told of the effort to force Con Ed to clean up at the river’s edge, City Councilman John Liu, a Democrat representing the area, said it was good news. “I always assumed there would be a complete and thorough cleanup of the former Con Ed site,” Liu said.

– Adam Pincus