The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation took a year to alert Gowanus Canal residents about toxic fumes rising into the building that houses the popular Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club in Brooklyn, according to documents reviewed by Gothamist. Despite being discovered by the DEC nearly two years ago, the airborne hazards at 514 Union St. have not been widely communicated.
The DEC had documented indoor air pollution concerns at the venue beginning in March 2021 that involved a cancer-causing chemical called trichloroethylene or TCE, an industrial solvent used in manufacturing that’s resistant to degradation. The 21,000 microgram per cubic meter concentration of trichloroethylene measured under parts of the building is more than 10,000 times the allowable amount under New York State Department of Health guidelines, according to monitoring results from the DEC.
This underground pollution is seeping fumes into the indoor air at the Royal Palms that have been measured at 20 times the state’s allowable limit, the results show. High levels of contaminants, including TCE, remained detectable in the building’s underlying soil and groundwater through last autumn, according to a DEC investigation.
A state-approved construction project to contain and reduce these fumes only began in February, and all the systems meant to help vent the underground pollution won’t be completed until the third quarter of 2024.
Thousands of people have likely been exposed to trichloroethylene at the Royal Palms, given the club's popularity, its 500-person capacity for events and the fact that the ground contamination predated the detection two years ago as well as the club’s opening in 2013. Aside from cancer, long-term exposure to trichloroethylene can cause headaches, liver damage and even death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Other hazardous chemicals are present at the site along with trichloroethylene. DEC documents said the agency detected high amounts of perchloroethylene and methylene chloride that exceed New York State Department of Health guidelines.
The DEC said it plans to share its findings this summer. Even after the containment project is complete, the agency will monitor the site on a quarterly basis for at least a year to determine if it’s successful.
In a statement to Gothamist, Royal Palms co-owner Jonathan Schnapp pointed to the DEC’s approval of a plan to remediate pollution underneath the location.
“They [DEC] determined that air conditions were not dangerous in a way that would prevent people from spending time inside the building at 514 Union St. during that process,” Schnapp said. “Rather than passing judgment on the benefits or drawbacks of residential development in Gowanus, the Royal Palms remains focused on nurturing the incredible community it's built over the past decade and continuing to introduce new players to the game of shuffleboard for years to come."
The building’s owners — Avery Hall Investments — said this remediation plan will occur in three phases for 514 Union St. and a neighboring development site.
“The first phase has been completed, with the second phase underway and a third phase planned for the future development,” the emailed statement said. “The property owner and tenant have complied with the DEC-approved remediation plan throughout the process.”
A “mixed-use and mixed-income” apartment complex is to be built around the Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club and completed in 2025.
What the public knew about the 'brownfield' under 514 Union St.
The toxic gases are rising into the Royal Palms venue from below, caused by a legacy of manufacturing in the area, according to historic maps and DEC information. This phenomenon is called vapor intrusion, which occurs when chemicals from the soil and groundwater evaporate and enter buildings through cracks in the foundation.
The process creates what federal regulators call brownfield sites, or property “that may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.” In New York state, such land is overseen by the DEC’s Division of Environmental Remediation. The address housing the Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club — 514 Union St. — had previously been used as a facility to manufacture building materials and other products since 1886.
In January 2021, Avery Hall Investments — under 473 President LLC — applied for funding under New York’s Brownfield Cleanup Program, a voluntary program that helps tidy up and redevelop contaminated sites by providing developers opportunities for property tax credits and liability protection.
An environmental history, appended to the company’s application, states that a 2019 investigation found ground contamination among the properties adjacent to 514 Union St. Pollution on the site could have come from the nearby Gowanus Canal, 318 Nevins St. – a former petroleum bulk storage location – and other hazardous sites in the area, according to the DEC.
The DEC said the owners of Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club became aware of the indoor air pollution in April 2021, a few weeks after a fresh survey was conducted at the grounds. The location was designated a brownfield site by late October.
Another five months passed before the DEC alerted the public about the contamination at 514 Union St. — and this announcement and subsequent updates were not widely publicized.
If you have a very large population living in an area that is affected by this chronic exposure then you're really putting a lot of people at risk.
The DEC said they shared factsheets on the site’s initial investigation proposal and interim remediation plans in March 2022 with those who’ve registered online for the agency’s email alerts. Another factsheet was sent in December when the remediation plan was updated.
This email alert reaches about 57,000 people, according to the DEC, but only 15,000 subscribers are based in Brooklyn, a borough with a population of 2.7 million. (Census data shows Gowanus’s population is nearly 20,000 on its own). The December factsheet was also accompanied by a notice in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
The factsheets and notice do not mention the levels of trichloroethylene, or any other contaminant, exceeding the New York State Department of Health guideline.
Gothamist spoke with 10 Gowanus residents who said although they or organizations they’re affiliated with receive the DEC’s email alerts about hazardous sites in the area, they were not aware of the contamination at 514 Union St.
“I occasionally receive some of their notices through the Gowanus CAG [Community Advisory Group] facilitator and have looked up the fact sheets of some of the sites in Gowanus,” said Katia Kelly, a long-time Brooklyn resident and member of the environmental organization Voice of Gowanus, via email. “I don’t remember specifically receiving anything on the Union St. site.”
Who’s most at risk?
Workers at the club and those who live near the 17,000 square foot venue are more likely than others to be exposed to TCE and other contaminants at the site, putting them at a higher risk of kidney and liver cancer, said Dr. Ana Navas-Acien, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University.
These cancers are linked to long-term exposure to the chemicals in the air, she said. In most cases, people will not notice a smell or be aware of their exposure to pollutants like trichloroethylene.
“That's one of the reasons why we need to minimize these exposures,” said Navas-Acien. “If you have a very large population living in an area that is affected by this chronic exposure then you're really putting a lot of people at risk, and you might be able to see excess cancer risk happening.”
Outside of cancer, these released fumes have short-term side effects. TCE can cause headaches, eye irritation, and some confusion in people exposed to the chemical, Navas-Acien said.
“I am even more worried about these toxic chemicals that you don't really notice because the levels are not high enough for you to detect them,” said Navas-Acien. “That's when you can be exposed for very long periods of time without being detected, and that's when it can be particularly harmful.”
Fixing the earth and clearing the air
Strict compliance with state standards would call for removing all of the underground toxins at 514 Union St., but multiple remediation plans put forth by the DEC and the building’s owners over the past year don’t include this measure.
Instead, the current remediation project, which is underway, would allow unknown amounts of toxic pollution to remain on-site where it threatens public health and the environment. Langan Engineering, an independent contractor and environmental consultant, is managing the project and also prepared the plans on behalf of the building’s owners.
The DEC’s plan is to drill down through the ground at various points around the site and inject 40,000 gallons of remedial chemicals to stabilize the pollution, contain its toxic plume and possibly keep it from migrating. State documents infer that the groundwater under the Royal Palms flows west toward the Gowanus Canal, a federally designated Superfund site located 350 feet away. Preventing this flow is a secondary objective of the remediation project.
An initial plan was pitched in July 2022, and then honed over the summer and fall during an investigation period. Updated details were released last month, with implementation set to begin immediately.
In the meantime, the Royal Palms site continues to pose indoor air risks, so the DEC accepted a separate plan from Avery Hall Investments to vent the pollution from the ground before it enters the building. But this project doesn’t go as far as what’s typically expected.
Normally, the agency would install a “sub-slab depressurization” system to move the underground fumes before the hazardous chemicals can rise into the building, said Walter Hang, president and founder of Toxics Targeting, an Ithaca-based environmental data firm that tracks and analyzes documented contamination sites using available government information.
Such a system consists of a series of fans and multiple pipes to carry pollution from under the building to outdoors where the particles “dissipate and are not harmful to human health,” the DEC said.
But the original work plan, issued last July by the DEC and the building’s developers, said a sub-slab depressurization system could not be installed because of the “unique construction of the building,” namely the finished floor “precludes access to the building slab for the majority of the site.”
Instead, the project developed a scaled-down alternative at “four ventilation points across the site” in consultation with the New York State Department of Health. It was installed in the space beneath the finished floor and the building’s concrete slab last September.
“An effective modified soil vapor intrusion mitigation system was installed,” the DEC told Gothamist. “The system is designed to prevent soil vapor contaminants from entering the indoor air by venting this air outdoors where the contaminants dissipate and are not harmful to human health.”
The agency added that indoor air results have shown that the system is working effectively. Gothamist asked the DEC to provide evidence of the recent indoor measurements, but the agency didn’t reply before publication.
The debate over doing enough for Gowanus
Hang has been working with Voice of Gowanus, the grassroots organization in Brooklyn, on a campaign that calls for the DEC to reject the current cleanup objectives for 514 Union St. and implement a new plan that will remove all toxic chemicals from the site. Regardless of whether an underground ventilation system is installed or all the floor cracks and drains are sealed, there’s still a risk of contamination, he said.
The Environmental Protection Agency has likewise voiced concerns that New York state is not remediating "upland" toxic sites sufficiently to safeguard public health and prevent recontamination of the Gowanus Canal.
“It is our responsibility as public servants to really be truthful to the mission of the agency and do whatever the law requires us to do,” said Christos Tsiamis, the EPA’s Gowanus Canal remedial project manager, during a Jan. 23 Gowanus Community Advisory Group meeting about the DEC’s proposed plan to not fully clean up the nearby Citizens Manufactured Gas Plant. “We will be amiss if we turn around and did not take the measures that have to be taken.”
Andrew Guglielmi, the DEC's director of environmental remediation, wrote in a letter to volunteer members of the Gowanus Canal Community Action Group on Jan. 6: “The goal of New York’s Brownfield Cleanup and State Superfund programs is to ensure that contaminated properties are cleaned up, with a specific focus on protecting public health by reducing any potential for exposure to site-related contamination.”
He added in a statement to Gothamist that the DEC prioritizes the protection of public health and the environment and works closely with the state health department to address any immediate exposure concerns.
“New York state has a proven track record of successfully investigating and cleaning up many contaminated sites across New York City, including former industrial sites like 514 Union St. and others in the Gowanus Canal area, under the state’s various cleanup programs, including the Brownfield Cleanup Program,” Guglielmi said.
Hang and members of Voice of Gowanus are requesting that New York Gov. Kathy Hochul require a comprehensive site remediation in strict compliance with all applicable regulatory requirements, including restoration of the site to "pre-disposal" conditions, or the way the land was before it was contaminated.
Margaret Maugenest, a Voice of Gowanus member and long-time resident of the neighborhood, said the DEC’s cleanup plan does not fulfill the goals of the agency. She said the proposed cleanup for this site fails to enforce Section 171 of the New York Navigation Law, which ensures the “prompt cleanup” and “removal” of leaking petroleum that has damaged the environment and poses a risk to public health.
“While you may be able to limit direct contact, you can’t control any kind of gases from this,” she said. “The only remedy is you either have to clean it all up or don’t build on it.”