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Pollution mysteries await Willets Point cleanup

By Stephen Stirling
TimesLedger Newspapers
2/28/08

Though the public approval process is yet to begin on the redevelopment of Willets Point, the New York City Economic Development Corporation is making preparations to tackle a complex goulash of contamination that spans across the entire site and runs decades deep.

Conservative estimates from the EDC have put the cost of the remediation, expected to be one of the largest in city history, at more than $50 million with the process taking upward of three years to complete. EDC Vice President Kay Zias, who has been heading up the agency’s plans for the site’s remediation, said it was too early to pinpoint the cost and cleanup length because the city does not know the extent of the contamination that lies underneath the more than 250 businesses that occupy the land.

“Basically remediation depends on what exactly is found where,” Zias said.

The EDC has only been able to test the soil and groundwater on what is now public property, meaning on the streets and underneath both the streets and sidewalks that border the 60-acre swath of developable land in the small conglomeration of businesses.

Thus far, the EDC said it found evidence of petroleum and corrosive metal contamination in the soil and groundwater, which are probably byproducts of the auto-related and manufacturing businesses in the area.

High levels of petroleum and metal contamination in soil have been linked to significant health effects, such as certain kinds of cancer like leukemia. Such contaminants can also have disastrous effects on a local ecosystem, killing bacteria and other small organisms whose absence can have a ripple effect up the food chain.

Zias said the levels of contamination were not “epic,” but would likely be greater on the business sites themselves. The EDC said the lack of infrastructure in the area is expected to play a role in the level of contaminants found. Wihout sanitary sewers water can collect freely and spread contaminents across the site and many of the businesses have freestanding petroleum and sewage tanks, which can also pose a contamination threat if they leak.

“There is a tank associated with pretty much every tenant or privately held parcel here, and whether it be above ground or underground it’s still a possibility of contamination that has to be explored,” Zias said.

Zias said what will likely be the most complicated and pressing aspect of any remediation to take place will not be what is near the surface but what lies below. She said the site’s history as a filled-in wetland and earlier use as an ash and cinder dump in the early part of the century may mean that potentially combustible gases are lurking below.

“What’s also happening here is beneath everything are ashes and cinders and various fills in a swamp kind of context, which creates methane gases,” Zias said. “Which is a naturally occurring process, but it’s problematic if it travels into contained space like basements, where it can spontaneously combust.”

Zias said that if this is the case, development pursued on the site will almost certainly have to include plans for a ventilation system that allows the gases to disperse in a controlled manner. Such a system would probably include individual ventilation systems on buildings that go up in the area and interceptor trenches – dikes used to allow vapor to be channeled and dissipated – along the sides of streets and buildings.

The EDC has repeatedly said that the entire site will have to be cleaned up as a whole, which some have criticized as a ploy to force the removal of the existing businesses more quickly. Zias said, however, that it makes more practical sense to clean the site as a whole because there is less of a chance of encountering complications, such as flooding recontaminating cleaned portions of the site, down the road.

“There’s just sort of a functional problem there,” Zias said. “The costs there would increase significantly if you have to take that extra effort to do it this way. So it can be done. It’s just a lot more costly.”

Overall, Zias stressed that if the project is approved, the remediation is expected be lengthy and arduous. She said within every aspect of it there lies a myriad of details that have to be covered with a fine-tooth comb, such as where contaminated soil will go, what replaces it and how much regulatory oversight will be needed.

“Every bit of imported material has to be tested as well to make sure that it’s no worse if not significantly better than what’s there right now,” she said. “We have to be very confident in our source, just as we have to be confident in what we’re taking out.”

Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e-mail Sstirling@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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Filed under: Willets Point

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