Four of the nine ballfields in Red Hook Park are closed for "at least a year" while the federal government figures out how to clean up serious lead contamination lurking beneath the soil—and investigates the rest of the park to see if it's dangerously polluted, too.
The contamination was first discovered by city testers back in the spring of 2012, but the cleanup was limited to paving one entrance leading into Ball Field No. 5 and planting more grass, according to an Environmental Protection Agency presentation (PDF).
Last fall and this spring, the EPA tested again and found elevated levels of lead starting at the surface in ball fields 5-8. It also found dangerous lead concentrations six inches underground in the Bay Street Picnic Area, on either side of Henry Street, and under a yard of the nearby Red Hook East Houses. All the other sports fields in the park also had higher-than-normal lead levels an inch below ground, but not so high that they are considered "acute risks" like the lead in the closed ballfields.
Lead poses the biggest threat to children, as they are the most likely to ingest it from dirt or paint, and children with lead poisoning can suffer development disabilities, kidney and circulation problems, and even death. There's also research that suggests lead poisoning is linked to aggression, and levels of lead pollution are correlated to rates of violent crime, more so than Broken Windows policing. How deep the lead is in the soil is important because, to get poisoned, kids have to swallow or inhale the dirt or dust containing the lead, which would be very easy to do, say, sliding into first base. (A Parks Department spokeswoman disputes that a first-base slide would be dangerous, saying there is a layer of clay over the contaminated soil, but EPA testing found high lead levels at a depth of 0-1 in.)
The closed fields account for all of the park's Little-League-sized diamonds, and the move has put the Red Hook Youth Baseball League on hold indefinitely. Viviana Gordon, deputy director of the Red Hook Community Justice Center, which runs the league for 6-13-year-olds, said the city has given it permits for baseball fields elsewhere, but that to relocate the games would defeat the purpose of a neighborhood league. The league does plan to hold clinics in the ball fields across Bay Street, and extend permits to kids who can travel. But as far as the normal season goes, spring training would have started in March, so it's a bust.
"The season is lost because we would have been in full swing in this point," Gordon said.
She added that at a presentation on Monday night, the EPA didn't say what risk players and longtime coaches might be at for lead exposure, but that officials encouraged people to get their blood tested. Regular smoothing of the diamonds by a machine disturbs the soil, she said.
The Department of Parks and Recreation's Brooklyn commissioner said the agency is working its fastest to bring the fields back to usable condition.
"NYC Parks recognizes how much the community values the Red Hook ball fields, which is why we're working with [the] EPA and [the Department of Health] to ensure they are safe to use," Commissioner Kevin Jeffrey said.
The heavy metal pollution in Red Hook Park is left over from Columbia Smelting and Refining Works, where scrap lead was refined from the 1920s to the late 1930s. The operation occupied part of what's now Ball Field 7, and it sent lead-dust flying over a two-block area. The factory's footprint is now a Superfund cleanup site and the EPA is testing the rest of Red Hook Park more closely. Results from the latest round of testing are expected in June. The feds have determined that the poison in the Red Hook Houses and the Bay Street picnic area is not from the Columbia smelting facility, and thus not their problem.
Viviana Gordon, the baseball league organizer, also noted that there is a dearth of park space in Red Hook, since the neighborhood's Coffey Park has been closed since April 2013. It was supposed to reopen last month, but that has been pushed back to June.
"There's only so many places for kids to go," she said.
The food vendors who make Red Hook Park a culinary destination had their opening day last weekend. A spokesman for the vendors said they expect the closures to hit them in the pocketbook over the long-term, but that last weekend was usual for the beginning of the season, with "lots of support from our patrons."
Update 2:22 pm:
Response added from a representative of the Red Hook Park food vendors.
Updated 5:33 pm:
Updated to indicate the smelting operation was located under Ball Field 7, not 5, and to incorporate a response and a statement from the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Updated 6:53 pm:
Information about the Red Hook Youth Baseball League added.