Greenpoint Landing: The Story of the School and the Sludge Tank

The Framework Plan for Greenpoint Landing actually shows the school one block East of the location where they plan to build. The school building will be located at 219 West Street, not Franklin Street, as this map shows.

Greenpoint Landing, for those readers who are unfamiliar, is the proposed and now, approved, project that encompasses 20 acres of the Greenpoint waterfront, and will include the construction of ten 30-40 story towers, as well as a new school and a public park.

The final vote on the project was cast on Tuesday 12/10 by the City Council, and although Council Member Stephen Levin won some benefits through his negotiations, many questions remain unanswered.

The vote was based on a hearing that took place the previous week at City Hall, where the developers presented their plan, answered questions from Levin, and heard testimonies from  those opposed and supported the project. But due to a last minute location change and an overlap of several meetings, at least 10 of those speakers who were called to testify were not available by the time they were called upon.

Some of the onlookers could be heard whispering that this was a conspiracy, intentionally arranged so that the voices of those in opposition to the massive building projects would not be heard.

The plan is highly controversial, with many residents concerned about issues relating to infrastructure strains, transportation, affordable housing and most urgently, the environmental impacts of developing on and near a National Superfund Site.

The actions voted on and passed covered two parts of the Future site of Greenpoint Landing , Lot 6 or as it’s lovingly named, “The Sludge Tank,” and 219 West St, the future site of a K-8th grade public school.

Stephen Levin leads the public hearing on Greenpoint Landing

The development of Greenpoint Landing, despite protests, is a right granted by the 2005 rezoning of North Brooklyn, approved under the Bloomberg Administration.  Therefore the development is already allowed by law “as of right.”

At the start of the meeting, Levin began by saying, “I want to make sure that I’m being very clear here for members of the community who have raised concerns about this project….A disapproval of the actions before us today would not prevent the Greenpoint Landing project from going forward.”

The vote included some positive additions to the development plan.

The developers, Greenpoint Landing Associates (G.L.A.) are now contributing an additional $3 million in funding for Newton Barge Park. In addition, they are giving 25k annually to the neighborhood to keep the new school open after hours for use as a community space.

The GLA also agreed that the 431 affordable housing units on site will be “permanently affordable” for local families, and threw in an additional $500,000 from the city for tenant anti-harassment and displacement costs. GLA is “exploring” the addition of affordable three-bedroom units; right now, there are only plans for one and two bedroom, and studio units, making the affordable housing less suited for the needs of larger families. Senior housing may also be added.

In addition, the city will fund a transportation plan for the area, to ease the congestion on the already-burden G and L trains. Free shuttle bus services will take residents and visitors from Greenpoint Landing to the 7 train at Court Square and the G train at India Street. There will also be a car-share facility inside the constructed buildings.

However, some serious concerns still remain.

For starters, Greenpoint Landing is located in a designated flood zone. The developers assured the council that they were taking the necessary building precautions to make sure that the site is safe in the case of natural disaster. But the fact remains that this is the same area that experienced flooding during Hurricane Sandy last year…oh, and tthis isn’t just your average flood water. It’s toxic.

In addition, the development arguably rests over or at the very least, in close proximity to, a toxic oil plume, a result of the Greenpoint Oil Spill of the 1950’s and chemical plasticizers from the former Nuhart Plastics plant that leaked into the soil.   If you’d like more details about the types of toxic waste that currently rest in the depths of Newtown Creek and the surrounding soil, New York Magazine put together this helpful list to clarify.  We can’t say that the traces of “liquid cow” and “black mayo” (not to mention sewage, used condoms, and dead rats) make us want to pack up and move to Greenpoint Landing anytime soon.

According to Catherine Kwan, the EPA’s project manager for the Newton Creek Superfund site, the EPA’s Phase I investigation, which included extensive air, water, and sediment sampling, found over 1600 chemicals in the creek. The findings are still being analyzed. The Phase II investigation will include a Baseline Human Health Risk Assessment, which will determine just how hazardous the site’s contamination is.

The GLA agreed, upon the vote, that the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation will be required to lead a comprehensive cleanup and testing for the contamination underneath Dupont and Franklin Streets. This “remediation” of the site must take place before construction of the school begins. This includes soil and groundwater cleanup of any chemicals or toxins that would negatively affect children’s health, as well as cumulative health impacts.  However,  the process of air quality cleanup is questionable, especially since the toxins in the air and the impact of those toxins on public health, haven’t even been determined yet by the EPA.

The agreement also states that “no environmental contamination has been found on the Greenpoint Landing site, including the school site.” However, the data to support this claim has not been released to the public.

“According to the latest information from the Department of Environmental Conservation and analysis by the developers, the contamination from the Nuhart site has not reached the school site,” Matt Ojala, who runs communication for Levin, told me over email. “I don’t have copies of this data right now, but we are expecting information from the School Construction Authority as to their remediation procedures in the coming days.”

In response to Levin’s questions about sending children to school in a potentially health-threatening environment, the School Construction Authority claimed that they did an investigation of the site in 2005 and are aware of the environmental concerns. Again, the results of this investigation have not been released.

“As part of the design/construction, there will be an active sub-slab depressurication system and a soil-vapor barrier to prevent the potential migration of petrolium or other organic vapors into the building,” the SCA representative said, during the hearing.

He assured the Council that the school site must be 100% clean (having gone through environmental remediation) before ground is broken.

The sludge tank that currently rests on the property will be demolished in 2014 and replaced by a residential building. Likewise, environmental remediation will, so we are told, free the soil of toxins before construction begins. But again, what about air-borne toxins?

Some Greenpointers are still unsatisfied with the negotiations. Kim Mason of the opposition organization, Save Greenpoint, argues that the according to the Superfund Map, the phalate plume (the toxic bi-product of Nuhart Plastics) rests at the door of the future school site.

“This is a rough estimate; they don’t know the exact edges of the plume,” she explained. “But it doesn’t matter –it’s too close for comfort.  This is a public health threat.”

So, why didn’t the city find an alternate location to build a new school, one that isn’t chalk full of toxic industrial waste? Because they were able to get the land from the developers at a discount.

The NYC Department of Education said just that in their proposal for the school’s construction. Because the developers agreed to sell the school land to the city for a “nominal amount” (far below the actual land value), they write, “no alternate sites have been considered.” The other reason that they provide is that that school will be able to accommodate all of the future children who live in the new buildings…at Greenpoint Landing.

Upon further examination of the site maps, it appears that the main areas of the toxic plume (part of the Superfund site) are between Clay and Dupont Streets. That is approximately one block from the location of the proposed community school which will house 640 children.

Let’s just hope those students don’t try to go for a swim after class.

The contaminated area, according to the Superfund Map
The proposed site for the new K-8 school, as outlined by GLA

For a close-up version of the development map, click here. You can also watch the entire Greenpoint Landing Hearing here.