Once, 170 years ago, there was a factory on Staten Island, and the factory made lead. Some of the lead got into the ground. In the 1920s the factory caught fire and burned down. The lead stayed.

60 years later, people from the Environmental Protection Agency came to see about cleaning the lead up, but they couldn’t find it; the property owner had given them the wrong address. Not too wrong, but just enough: It referred to Shore Road, which the street outside the factory used to be called decades earlier, before it became Richmond Terrace. The lead stayed.

This was in 1981. The factory site is now a dusty lot, and the lead is still there. But the EPA, which had missed it the first time, went back in 2008 and determined last year that it must go. A spokesman told City Limits that the agency hopes to take more soil samples this month, as soon as a sampling plan is complete.

The property–commonly known by the names of former owners, like Jewett White Lead and Sedutto’s Ice Cream–has much in common with its industrial neighbors on the island’s North Shore. Besides the shore’s 60,000 residents, the 5-mile stretch of Staten Island facing the narrow Kill Van Kull is home to a checkerboard of toxic and contaminated sites, several of which have been polluted for decades without cleanup.

Even as debates about new industry on the shore continue – planned projects include a controversial cement terminal and a container port expansion that would pave over 18 acres of marshland –the toxic legacy of old industry remains, and while it’s the focus of
renewed government attention, officials at the agencies involved say long and deliberate remediation processes are just getting started.

For residents, action cannot come soon enough; according to Census data, four of Staten Island’s five poorest zip codes are on the North Shore. In some cases, all that separates industrial sites from residential areas is the width of Richmond Terrace. In others, the margin is even less.

“Everybody in this community is already at a disadvantage,” said Beryl Thurman, executive director of the North Shore Waterfront Conservancy of Staten Island. “The last thing they need to deal with is the disadvantage of being in an environment that’s poisoning them.”

In 2008, Thurman, who lives in the North Shore’s Port Richmond neighborhood, used $10,000 in grant money from the state Department of Environmental Conservation to produce a booklet, sardonically titled “Staten Island’s Gold Coast.” It details the troubled environmental history of 21 different sites on the North Shore, ranging from the alarming (a Manhattan Project-era uranium spill) to the mundane (fumes from a bus depot).

The EPA took notice, and in November, it named the North Shore as one of 10 charter members in its Environmental Justice Showcase Communities program. The program targets communities with “multiple, disproportionate environmental health burdens” and “limits to effective participation in decisions” about environmental issues, according to the EPA’s web site. It is not primarily focused on cleanup, but on broader tasks like education and community outreach. On Staten Island, the program’s web site says, the agency aims to develop a community-based health strategy.

By federal government standards, the funding for the Showcase project is slim: $1 million, to be divided among the 10 named communities, which are spread across the country.

The process of dividing and allocating the North Shore’s $100,000 will be complex.
A coalition of more than a dozen local groups, agencies and elected officials have been meeting to formulate a plan. The next meeting is on June 23. The work, while encouraging, is slow, said Dee Vandenberg, president of the Staten Island Taxpayers Association, a coalition member.

“Some of us work together quite well, and some of us have never worked together on anything,” Vandenberg said. “It’s not going to be an easy task.”

In the meantime, the coalition members are pursuing shorter-term goals like asking local governments for signage along the shore to warn against the dangers of eating fish from Kill Van Kull, where anglers are active. The state Department of Health advises handling Kill Van Kull fish with care, and never eating striped bass from that waterway.

The most worrisome contaminants in the fish, the Department of Health says, are PCBs, dioxin and cadmium. But at one site on the banks of the Kill, by the Bayonne Bridge, an even more alarming chemical has lurked for almost six decades. It is uranium, spilled onto waterfront ground during one site’s long-ago association with the Manhattan Project.

According to Department of Energy documents, several private companies involved with the development of the first atomic bomb stored 2,007 drums of high-grade uranium ore from the Belgian Congo at a warehouse off Richmond Terrace between 1940 and 1942. The uranium was bought by the federal government and moved in late 1942– but along the way, some of it seems to have been left behind.

An investigation by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 1980 concluded that a 20-by-40-meter area appeared to be contaminated with uranium ore, and recommended further investigation.

The uranium’s chain of custody, though, was complex, which means that who spilled the uranium, who should clean it up and who should pay for the work has long been disputed. While the ore was on Staten Island, according to Department of Energy records, it was owned by a Belgian company called Union Miniere du Haut Katanga. The warehouse was owned by the Archer Daniels Midland Company, and rented by the African Metals Corporation. The Department of Energy, meanwhile, insisted from the time that it discovered the contamination in 1980 that it was not responsible for the uranium, or for removing it.

That disavowal of responsibility, which the agency maintained steadfastly throughout the 1980s and ‘90s in correspondence with the site’s owners and state officials, has lately softened. This year, an EPA spokesman said, the energy department reversed its long-held position and decided to include the land in its Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program.

That program is administered by yet another agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, and that agency is just beginning its work on the site. Allen Roos, chief of the corps’ environmental branch for its New York district, said a preliminary assessment is underway. That, he said, is just the first step in a multi-part process that could include more site investigation, a proposed action plan, a public comment period and, eventually, depending on the outcomes of the other steps, the actual remediation.

The warehouse site today is empty of buildings. How much longer the uranium will remain, Roos said, is impossible to know. “We just began this whole process early this year,” he said. “So we’re just starting down the road.”

A much quicker remediation – if not an actual cleanup – took place about a half-mile away, at another polluted north shore site: the city-owned Veterans Park.

There, in a 1.28-acre slice of manicured lawn lined with trees and benches, EPA investigators researching the Jewett White Lead Company site last spring found traces of lead. A city Parks Department follow-up, a Department of Health spokeswoman said, found amounts of lead that were below the safe recommended limit. But the tests also found arsenic, throughout the park, in levels that exceeded the safe limit.

The park is a popular neighborhood hub and residents were concerned, but the Parks Department, spokeswoman Meghan Lalor said, “determined that there was no immediate health risk from soil in the park.” Still, in work that began last spring and continued into the fall, the department capped the park’s lawns and planting beds with wood chips, a layer of fabric, clean topsoil, mulch and fresh plantings.

With that, Lalor said, the Parks Department considers the matter closed. Some residents, though, are unsatisfied.

Thurman maintained that the continued presence of the tainted soil, albeit under a layer of clean soil, is troubling. “There are still children that go in that park,” she said. “I had to walk over and tell the moms, ‘Tell your kids to stop digging in the dirt, because it has arsenic and lead in the soil and it’s poisonous.'”

Terry Troia, a member of the board of the Port Richmond Improvement Association, a local civic group, was more optimistic, and said the city had met most of her group’s expectations.

Still, she said, there are two more things she would like to see. The first is new testing to ensure that the new topsoil is clean. The second is a study to solve the enduring mystery of where the lead – and especially the arsenic – in the park came from.

“Chances are it’s from another century,” Troia said. “But nobody knows. It’s all guesswork.”

Meanwhile, at the Jewett White Lead site, two blocks away, work continues. Last summer the EPA tested more than a dozen other locations around the neighborhood, to see if contamination from the former lead factory had spread. In March, it released findings stating that while neighboring properties did have elevated lead levels, they were not related to the Jewett site’s contamination. More likely, the agency found, lead found around houses in the area is from peeling paint.

This is the first of a three-part series on environmental concerns affecting Staten Island. Read Part 2 here and Part 3 here.