The Environmental Protection Agency has announced a proposal to designate the Meeker Avenue Plume in Greenpoint, Brooklyn as a federal Superfund site.
If the area is added to the EPA’s Superfund National Priority List, it would become eligible for a cleanup as New York City’s fourth Superfund site. The Superfund program seeks to remediate the most polluted sites in the United States, and it allows the EPA to bill the cost of their cleanups to those who caused the pollution. Three other toxic Superfund sites in the city are currently undergoing lengthy cleanup processes, which will take many more years and hundreds of millions of dollars to complete.
Since 2007, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) has been working to map and mitigate the Meeker Avenue Plume, an underground reservoir of chemical contamination, but the full extent of the problem has remained elusive.
Poisonous vapors from the plume have so far been detected inside dozens of homes and businesses across a wide swath of Greenpoint and East Williamsburg. The area impacted by the Meeker Avenue Plume encompasses about 45 blocks, which is roughly bounded by Norman Avenue in the north, Monitor Street in the west, Withers Street in the south, and the Newtown Creek in the east.
Greenpoint, Brooklyn is already one of the most toxic neighborhoods in New York City, befouled by more than a century of industrial waste, noxious chemicals and raw sewage. It is home to the Greenpoint oil spill, the largest urban oil spill in the United States, where decades of spillage have left 17 to 30 million gallons of oil underground. Greenpoint is also bordered by the Newtown Creek Superfund site, one of the most contaminated bodies of water in the country.
The Meeker Avenue Plume is a collection of underground chemical contaminants that seeped into the neighborhood’s soil and groundwater from local dry cleaning businesses, foundries and metalworking shops. The pollutants, primarily chlorinated solvents and petrochemicals derived from carbon, were first discovered in 2005 by the Exxon Mobil Corporation and the New York State Department of Transportation as part of the cleanup of the Greenpoint oil spill.
Remediation of the oil spill has been ongoing since 1978, when it was first spotted seeping into the Newtown Creek by the Coast Guard. More than 12.9 million gallons of oil have been pumped out from beneath the homes and businesses of Greenpoint so far, according to the Newtown Creek Alliance.
The spill’s 55-acre footprint overlaps significantly with these chemical plumes, but each poses different health risks to those living and working in the area. The most frequently found contaminants in the Meeker Avenue Plume include tetrachloroethylene, trichloroethylene, cis-1,2-dichloroethylene, and vinyl chloride — chemicals and gases commonly used in dry cleaning fluid, brake cleaner, metal degreasers and to produce a stiff plastic called polyvinyl chloride (PVC). These chemicals are now wafting their way into the basements of Greenpoint’s homes and businesses, as invisible carcinogenic vapors. The National Cancer Institute has linked exposure to these toxic materials with kidney, liver, brain and lung cancer, as well as lymphoma and leukemia.
Conducting a thorough cleanup across the dense urban landscape surrounding Meeker Avenue will be an exceedingly complicated process. The streets above the plume are busy trucking routes, which are still lined with numerous commercial dry cleaners and metal fabricators, alongside houses, apartment buildings, coffee shops and restaurants.
“The contaminant plume underlies a multitude of residences and workplaces. Hundreds of residents and workers are exposed to the indoor air contamination that results from vapor intrusion into the structures,” according to the EPA’s site description. “Contaminated groundwater in the underlying aquifer flows east-northeast and possibly discharges to Newtown Creek.”
New York City’s three other Superfund sites include the Newtown Creek, situated along the border between Brooklyn and Queens, which is still awaiting an official cleanup plan a decade after receiving its federal designation, the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, which is now being dredged to remove a century of toxic “black mayonnaise,” and the Wolff-Alport Chemical Company site in Ridgewood, Queens, where an investigation is underway to determine the full extent of the radioactive waste dumped underground.
“Ultimately, having a federal Superfund designation would be meaningful in a lot of ways. Specifically, it’s bringing necessary attention and resources to what I would say is not a very well known issue,” said Willis Elkins, the executive director of the Newtown Creek Alliance, a local environmental group which has urged the government to fully remediate the plumes. “There is not a ton of information that is available about the extent of the contamination, what’s happening with the remediation, and potential impacts on human health with those that are living or working above or near the plume.”
The New York State government is publicly supporting the creation of the new federal Superfund site in Greenpoint, even as the NYSDEC continues to monitor the plume’s toxicity. To date, the agency has installed soil vapor mitigation systems inside 16 residences and three businesses where contamination levels have exceeded regulatory levels. This February, they installed a mitigation system at Allsorts Inc., a set building fabrication shop for television and movies which is located inside a one-story warehouse in Greenpoint.
The mitigation system is approximately the size of a small car, and is essentially “a big vacuum constantly circulating air through,” according to Mike McNeill, the executive producer at Allsorts Inc. It runs constantly, sucking up underground fumes from beneath the warehouse’s concrete work floor — and venting them outside behind the building, where they are intended to be dispersed into the fresh air.
“They said it wasn’t harmful,” said McNeill, who lives and works in the footprint of the plume. “I’d always heard about the oil spill stuff, but I am not as familiar with the laundry spill. I don’t know much about it. Maybe it’s something I should be more worried about.”
Originally, members of the public could only offer comments about the proposed Superfund designation until November 8th at the EPA’s website. But the EPA has since announced that it has extended the period for public comment on the Meeker Avenue Plume until December 8th, 2021.
“The EPA will consider any public comments received and determine whether to finalize the site,” said Stephen McBay, a Public Information Officer at the EPA, in an email to WNYC/Gothamist. “If, after the formal comment period, the site still qualifies for cleanup under Superfund, it is formally listed on the National Priority List.”
This story was updated with the new deadline for public comment on the Meeker Avenue Plume.