The Meeker Avenue Plume in Brooklyn has been added to the Superfund National Priorities List, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced this week — making it New York City’s fourth federal Superfund site.
The plume is an underground reservoir of toxic chemicals found beneath the streets of northern Brooklyn, mostly in Greenpoint and East Williamsburg. First discovered in 2005, its footprint encompasses about 45 blocks of residential, commercial and industrial properties, including hundreds of homes and apartment buildings. The pollution in the plume came from local dry cleaning businesses, foundries and metalworking shops — and has seeped into the soil and groundwater, according to the EPA.
With this new Superfund designation, a full investigation of the Meeker Avenue Plume will now take place, using the extensive resources of the EPA’s Superfund program. This program seeks to remediate the most polluted sites in the United States, which pose a serious risk to human health.
After investigating the plume, the EPA will evaluate various cleanup options and seek to find the parties responsible for the pollution. If identified, they will be billed for the cost of its cleanup. The site may also be eligible for federal funds, including a recent influx of $3.5 billion to the Superfund Remedial Program from the bipartisan infrastructure law, which President Biden ratified in November 2021.
“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.
Hazardous vapors from the plume have already been detected inside dozens of homes and businesses by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which has worked to map and mitigate the plume since 2007.
The DEC has tracked down some of the former businesses that were responsible for dumping chemicals here, which include dry cleaners, a steel drum company, a brass foundry, and a soap and lacquer manufacturer. After 15 years, the full extent of pollution there remains unknown, and the state has publicly supported designating it as a federal Superfund site.
The main contaminants in the Meeker Avenue Plume identified by DEC include tetrachloroethylene, trichloroethylene, cis-1,2-dichloroethylene, and vinyl chloride. These chemicals and gasses are commonly used in dry cleaning fluid, brake cleaner and metal degreasers.
Manufacturers also use these compounds to produce polyvinyl chloride, a stiff plastic better known as PVC. Carcinogenic vapors released by the chemicals have been leaking into neighborhood basements and warehouses for decades. The National Cancer Institute has linked exposure to these toxic materials with kidney, liver, brain and lung cancer, as well as lymphoma and leukemia.
The cleanup process will be complicated by the fact that it will take place underneath two densely populated and heavily polluted neighborhoods. The plume’s footprint overlaps with the 55-acre Greenpoint oil spill, where an ongoing cleanup is pumping out the 17 to 30 million gallons of oil floating underneath this Brooklyn neighborhood. The plume may also be contributing to the contamination of Newtown Creek, a separate Superfund site on the northeastern borders of Greenpoint and East Williamsburg.
“Honestly, I think it’s still too early to know how this is going to impact people that are living and working on top of the plume. We just don’t know how it’s going to play out,” said Willis Elkins, the executive director of the Newtown Creek Alliance, a local environmental group that has long advocated for a cleanup here.
“This has been a known issue for a really long time, and there hasn’t been the sort of investigation and cleanup that is necessary to really address it,” Elkins continued. “So this new level of investment from the EPA hopefully expedites a thorough and comprehensive cleanup.”
Along with Newtown Creek and the Meeker Avenue Plume, New York City’s two other Superfund sites are the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, the Wolff-Alport Chemical Company site in Ridgewood, Queens. Each of the three previously declared sites is currently in the midst of a lengthy cleanup process, which may take decades to finish.