The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has begun monitoring the soil and air around New York City’s most recent Superfund site – the Meeker Avenue Plume in northern Brooklyn – for chemical levels that could pose a risk to human health.

Decades ago, dry-cleaners and metalworking businesses in Greenpoint and East Williamsburg improperly disposed of chemical waste in the area. Though many of the polluting businesses have long been shuttered, the contamination still lurks underground. In March, the EPA added the hazardous area to the Superfund National Priorities List, meaning that the cleanup of the Meeker Avenue Plume would be federally managed. The site spans approximately 45 residential and industrial blocks, with P.S. 110 and the popular Monsignor McGolrick Park on its edge.

Last month, the EPA began drilling monitoring devices into the basements of neighborhood homes and businesses to determine the level of contamination and its potential health effects, marking the EPA’s first step toward cleanup. Vapor from the plume can seep into homes and businesses via cracks in a building’s foundation or through utility lines, according to John Brennan, who manages the site’s remediation for the EPA.

“Our primary concern is vapor intrusion,” said Stephanie Vaughn, who oversees the site for the EPA. “We're just going to keep sampling and, where necessary, resampling to make sure that folks are not impacted in their homes.”

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation previously monitored soil and groundwater around the plume. But City Councilmember Lincoln Restler and other local officials had long advocated that it be added to the federal Superfund program, which provides more resources to the effort and allows investigators to hold the initial polluters financially accountable.

Site location map for the Meeker Avenue Plume, as of Dec. 7, 2022. The plume's boundaries could shift if field monitoring detects fumes in new locations.

EPA

“It's been over 15 years since the Meeker Avenue plumes were first identified as a public health and safety threat to our community,” Restler said. “The reason that we wanted to see a Superfund designation here is because the EPA has the tools to hold the responsible parties accountable, bring them to the table, and get these sites cleaned up much more effectively.”

The DEC previously found a group of chemicals called chlorinated volatile organic compounds – primarily tetrachloroethylene, trichloroethylene, cis-1,2-dichloroethylene, and vinyl chloride – at the site. Prolonged exposure to these chemicals could lead to headaches, throat irritations, and possible cancer and liver damage, according to the EPA.

“There are so many people that are living on top of this plume,” said Lisa Bloodgood, a longtime resident of northern Brooklyn and former director of advocacy and education at the environmental group Newtown Creek Alliance. “There's hundreds of homes, many, many businesses. So that question of, is it in your home, or my home? Is it in the places where we work? That's really worth finding out and addressing.”

The full health risks of the Meeker Avenue site remain unclear as studies remain ongoing, Vaughn said.

“We don't think there's any need to panic, and we don't want to scare people,” said Vaughn. “But we also want to sample, and if we find a problem, we do want to mitigate it as soon as possible.”

About one month after monitoring each building, the EPA will share the results with building owners and tenants — and will cover the costs for installing a pressurized system that draws the vapors up from underneath their buildings’ foundations and emits them into the air above, where the fumes dissipate to nonhazardous levels, Vaughn said.

For residential spaces, the EPA plans to rely on building owners to give permission for monitoring, Vaughn said. Even if a tenant is open to the idea – or requests it – the agency needs the landlord to agree to the sampling, she said.

That leaves some renters concerned that their landlords might opt out of the process, said Lael Goodman, environmental justice program manager at North Brooklyn Neighbors, a local advocacy group.

“People are worried about property values. They're worried about any risk that they would take on if they know something,” Goodman said. “Sometimes people bury their head in the sand, but that can have negative health impacts.”

Excerpt from EPA's community update for December 2022.

EPA

So far, the EPA has reached out to 70 homeowners in the area, Vaughn said, and plans to continue outreach. It will also conduct monitoring in areas slightly outside the plume’s bounds, including at the nearby Cooper Park Houses public housing complex. The Superfund’s boundaries may also shift based on what their analysis finds.

“Just because you're within that outline does not mean that your property is necessarily affected,” Vaughn said. “And just because you're just outside the line doesn't mean we're going to ignore you.”

Many neighborhood residents are already familiar with the Superfund cleanup process – and with how lengthy it can become. The Newtown Creek Superfund site sits adjacent to the plume — and its cleanup has been on the docket for more than a decade.

“It does make me a little anxious to know that I've been living on top of something that is super toxic for a long time,” said Heidi Vanderlee, who lives in a top-floor apartment on the edge of the plume site. “But it feels unavoidable in our neighborhood, to live somewhere that's not polluted somehow.”

Vanderlee, who has been involved in environmental organizing in the neighborhood, said she plans to join the EPA’s community advisory group for the Meeker Avenue Plume. It’s a forum for residents to give input on the cleanup’s approach. She said she’s hopeful that residents of north Brooklyn will feel empowered by the information the EPA collects.

“I feel like I'm in the next stage of grieving,” Vanderlee said. “I'm like, ‘OK, so this happened. Now what do we do?’”