Wolff-Alport Superfund Site

J. Murphy

A former ice warehouse occupies one corner of a Bushwick parcel contaminated by radioactive waste decades ago and now slated for a remediation project.

Heavy industry, new development, the signs of gentrification—these major elements of Bushwick’s story are concentrated in the northwestern end of the rhombus that roughly maps the Brooklyn neighborhood. Take a summer walk southeast along one of the area’s major interior corridors and the noise of truck traffic dissipates and the presence of hip storefronts peters out. Bushwick’s southeast frontier features a few industrial properties, an empty lot, a couple schools and the Wilson Avenue L station, all pressed up against the border of the Cemetery of the Evergreens.

On one particularly quiet corner, where Irving Avenue ends at Moffat Street, the big story is underground. It’s in the soil that the Environmental Protection Agency has determined was polluted by radioactive material decades ago—contamination that the EPA says “may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health, welfare, or the environment,” a finding that led the site to be added to the Superfund, a federal program that pays for the clean-ups of toxic land.

A quiet site

Unlike the Gowanus Canal or Newtown Creek, two other Superfund sites in the city, there has been little advocacy or controversy around the site on Irving Avenue, which is labeled in EPA documents by the name of the company that contaminated it, the Wolff-Alport Chemical Company, and technically sits just over the borough border in Ridgewood, Queens.

Independent advocacy groups have long been active in supporting both the Gowanus and Newtown waterways, and in both cases local stakeholders have formed a Community Advisory Group to liaise with the EPA as the Superfund initiative plays out. In Newtown, there’s been friction over an aeration system. In Gowanus, there was a debate over where to handle the toxic sludge that will be dredged off the canal’s bottom.

There’s nothing similar going on at Wolff-Alport, perhaps because it’s smaller (0.75 acres as opposed to the 3.8-mile reach of the Creek) and the project there will be cheaper ($40 million versus $500 million for the Canal).

The EPA’s work there will have an impact, however. Incumbent businesses—an auto-repair shop, a flat fix place, a deli and a property restoration firm—will have to permanently move. The buildings, four on Irving Avenue and one that fronts on Cooper Street, will be demolished. Soil will be removed and a sewage pipe will be partially removed, then the remaining length power-cleaned. Depending on what tests on surrounding soils show, more soil might be taken.

Key steps loom

According to EPA Region II spokesman Elias Rodriguez, the demolition plan was approved in March. “The tenant relocation and building demolition are upcoming and EPA is providing support and outreach to the impacted tenants,” he tells City Limits by email.

The agency is now drawing up plans for excavating the former Wolff-Alport property and nearby contaminated soil. “It is anticipated that an investigation to better define the extent of the off-property soil that need to be addressed will commence in late summer 2019,” Rodriguez writes. “Lastly, EPA intends to negotiate with New York City regarding the performance of the design and construction work on city-owned property (i.e., roads, sidewalks, and sewers).” While there is no standing advisory group, the EPA and Rep. Nydia Velazquez have conducted some community engagement around the project.

Radiation down the drain

The Wolff-Alport company, which is now defunct, extracted rare earth metals from monazite sand at the site from 1920 until 1954. Monazite contains the radioactive element thorium, and the company disposed of contaminated waste in its sewer and around its grounds until 1947, when the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission ordered it to stop.

After it started investigating the site, the EPA found buildings, soil and sewers that were contaminated with Thorium-232, Radium-226, Radon-222, Radon-220, PCBs, and Benzo(a)pyrene, and determined there were “unacceptable exposure risks.”

In 2010, EPA detected high radon in the basement of PS384 and plugged a hole in the floor. Two years later it installed a “radon mitigation system” in one business and some metal shielding over an area of sidewalk to protect workers and pedestrians.The site was added to the Superfund list in 2014.

Last fall, the EPA reported that “the school has not been impacted by contamination from the Superfund site and there is no threat to school children from radiation at the Wolff-Alport site.”

“No additional testing is needed and children, parents, and school staff can be assured that they are in no immediate risk from radiological contamination” the agency says. More broadly, “there is no immediate threat to nearby residents, employees or customers of businesses along Irving and Cooper Avenues,” the agency says. (EPA documents note that, “While the site is located in a mixed industrial/commercial area, there are residences located on the former [Wolff-Alport] property and within a few hundred feet of the former [Wolff-Alport] property.”)

Superfund projects often operate on a “polluter pays” principle in which entities deemed responsible for pollution—or their successors—are forced to pay according to their share of the liability. In Gowanus, for instance, National Grid is on the hook for part of the cleanup cost because of the pollution created by gas companies that it purchased decades ago, and the City of New York has been found responsible for the impact on the canal of overflows from its combined sewer system.

At Wolff-Alport, the company responsible for the pollution has been defunct for a long time. The EPA says it is still working on tracking down responsible parties. The city is forking over $659,037 to the EPA to pay for clean-up steps so far, and it could be liable for more money.*

But so far, no private firms have been tapped. As of now, the only businesses that will pay a price are those who will have to move to make way for the cleanup, although the EPA says relocation assistance is available. Efforts to reach any of the businesses or property owners affected by the plan were unsuccessful.

* This segment was altered after publication in light of revised information from the EPA. The article was also corrected to reflect the fact that the Wilson Avenue L stop is the one at the neighborhood’s southeastern edge, not the Wyckoff Avenue stop.