Q&A: Mike Schade talks toxins at Nuhart Plant. Everyone needs to read this!

Photo credit: Fabien Palencia

The other day I sat down with my friend, fellow Greenpointer, and hardcore environmental justice advocate, Mike Schade, to get the skinny on Nuhart Plastics–one of the most toxic sites in the hood–which recently got sold to a developer with plans to convert the festering Superfund site into fancy condos.

When it comes to converting a Superfund site into residential development, gentrification should be the least  just one of our concerns. What’s happening at Nuhart is really serious business because the potential exposure to toxic chemicals is real and something all Greenpointers need to know about.

GP: So you’ve been fighting for environmental justice for a number of years in and outside of Greenpoint. Before we jump into Nuhart, can you tell folks a little about the work you do?

Mike: I’ve been working on environmental health/toxics issues full time for about 13 years (yikes!) now. For eight years I worked at the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (founded by Lois Gibbs of Love Canal fame, who was my boss) where I coordinated campaigns around PVC/vinyl plastic, phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA) and dioxin. 

I now work for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families which works to protect American families from unnecessary toxic chemicals.  I coordinate the Mind the Store campaign which challenges the nation’s biggest retailers, like Walmart, Target and Walgreens, to get tough on dangerous chemicals in everyday consumer products like cosmetics, cleaning products, and baby toys. 

In Greenpoint, I volunteer with Newtown Creek Alliance, the Newtown Creek Community Advisory Group (CAG), and recently helped to co-found McGolrick Park Neighborhood Alliance.  

GP: Each day there is some new report talking about the Earth falling into shambles if we don’t stop what we’re doing. You are out there in the trenches making a difference for environmental justice. What good things have come out of your advocacy work?

Mike: Of course the news can be depressing, but it can also be inspiring – seeing the power that we have to make change in our community.  I’m proud to work on successful national campaigns at CHEJ to ban bisphenol A (BPA) from baby bottles, phthalates in children’s toys, and toxic vinyl plastic out of products like shower curtains and packaging. Those efforts played a significant role in Congress banning phthalates in children’s toys in 2008.

When I worked up in Buffalo, we helped communities get toxic waste sites cleaned up, defeated proposed landfills in rural communities, and started a community air-monitoring program in Tonawanda, NY which led to a major multi-million state and federal enforcement action against a huge polluter, Tonawanda Coke. 

Most recently, our McGlorick Park group successfully secured $1.3 million from the city to build a new playground.  I don’t wanna toot my horn too much, but that’s the long and short of it.

GP: We all know that Newtown Creek is a Superfund site, but many folks don’t realize that Greenpoint is also host to another Superfund site—Nuhart Plastics. Can you brief us on Nuhart Plastics and what was left behind once the company closed shop?

Mike: Nuhart is an old PVC/vinyl plastics plant that operated in Greenpoint for around 50+ years under different owners. Now it is considered a hazardous waste site by the state.  Vinyl is widely considered to be the most toxic plastic for our health and environment.

They had a bunch of underground storage tanks there—17 to be exact—each holding up to 10,000 gallons of chemicals and oil.  Some of those tanks leaked and now the soil and groundwater underneath is heavily contaminated with chemicals like phthalates, including the most toxic one – DEHP. In some places there is also oil and the carcinogen TCE (trichlorolethelyne).

GP: Phthalates are what makes plastic super flexible. Why should Greenpointers be concerned about exposure if it’s used everywhere?

Mike: Phthalate can be dangerous at low levels of exposure–these are the same chemicals that we got banned in children’s toys—and now here they are in Greenpoint, lurking underneath this old vinyl plant.  They’ve been linked to all sorts of reproductive and developmental problems—clearly, they have no place in our community.

GP: When the neighborhood was fighting the Greenpoint Landing proposal last year, I discovered a map that showed a plume of phthalates oozing everywhere. In some spots it was 4-5 ft thick with the stuff. The plume is still there, right?

Mike: Yes, the phthalates have also traveled off site. They’re migrating towards the park and right up against the proposed school. There’s an estimated 42,000 to 63,000 gallons of contaminated phthalates underneath the plant and street. 

GP: Yikes! That’s a disturbing amount of phthalates. So when did Nuhart get its Superfund status?

Mike: In 2010 and DEC has been overseeing what’s called a remedial investigation there ever since.  It’s considered a class 2 state Superfund site – which means it represents a “significant threat to public health and/or the environment requiring action.” 

I recently gave a presentation at a NAG meeting about it – you can see my slides here: http://www.slideshare.net/mikeschade5/nu-hart-presentationfinal

GP: Yes, I was there for that presentation. Seriously, I almost puked in my lap from what I learned that night—and I know I wasn’t alone. This is why I wanted do this interview. We are all busy but everyone in Greenpoint should know what’s up with Nuhart. It really is that important.

So we know Greenpoint’s real estate market is white hot. Nuhart Plastics was recently sold. Do we know what the developer, Mr. Zhu, wants to build there?

Mike: Nothing has been publicly confirmed, but it’s been reported on the Real Deal that the site was bought for a staggering $48 million, and they reportedly want to build 400 apartments there.  I don’t know who would wanna live on top of that (or even work there), unless it’s comprehensively cleaned up.


GP: Depending on what gets built will dictate the level of clean-up, right?

Mike: I FOIL’d documents from the DEC and saw emails between the DEC and developer’s consultant discussing how they may build an underground parking garage on the site (I assume for giant condos – ugh).  If so, they’d need to excavate the soil going down to about 15 feet. According to my conversations with DEC, that would lead to a removal of most of the on-site contamination.

It’s all still preliminary though. The consultant is finalizing what’s called a Remedial Investigation and also a Feasibility Report, which summarizes the studies on-site and evaluates the different clean-up options.  The DEC and DOH will review those reports, and then issue what’s called a Proposed Remedial Action Plan (PRAP).

GP: Do we have any say in how the clean-up will be done?

Mike: Absolutely! Under state law, the public has the legal right to review and comment on that report (PRAP) during a public comment period and at a public meeting—which will likely be in February or March 2015. It’s super important for the community to engage in the process, so that the DEC considers the community’s interests, not just the big developer.

GP: So far, what has been removed or recovered from the site?

Mike: It’s my understanding what was left inside the storage tanks have been removed, and they’ve been pumping a limited amount of phthalates out on a monthly basis for the past few years.  Right now they’re removing about 50-70 gallons/month, which sounds like a lot, but not when there’s 63,000 gallons of toxic chemicals underneath there.  Chemicals should not be near a park or proposed school, in my opinion.

 GP: I heard this developer has deep pockets and wants to clean up the property quickly. What does this mean and should we be concerned?

Mike: We definitely should be concerned, especially about the off-site contamination that has migrated towards the park and proposed school. Also given that they found TCE there—that’s a big concern as TCE is very volatile and can migrate into buildings through a process called “vapor intrusion.”   This is another reason why the public comment period is so critical. It’s an opportunity for the public to ensure the on and off-site contamination is remediated fully, and to prevent future exposures for the community, especially as the site is redeveloped.

GP: For people who missed what happened with Greenpoint Landing’s proposed school site, can you tell us what will happen there since it’s uncomfortably close to this toxic soup?

Mike: When Councilmember Levin’s office negotiated the deal with Greenpoint Landing, they reached an agreement that the school could not be built there UNLESS the off-site contamination is comprehensively cleaned up within five years.  The cleanup language for the offsite phthalate contamination Councilmember Levin’s office got included is actually very strong, thankfully. If they can’t fully clean it up, they’d need to find another location for the school.

GP: Given the staggering amount of chemicals lurking around Nuhart, what do you make of the possible redevelopment of the land for residential use? Personally, I think a parking lot could work well there.

Mike: Well it’s hard to say given that the developer has said little to nothing publicly.  I’m not sure an empty warehouse with 60,000 gallons of poisonous chemicals underneath it serves the community so well, even if I think the building is quite beautiful. Hopefully any redevelopment could preserve it, especially the round corner/front.  On the other hand, I don’t think more giant condos that only lead to further gentrification serves our community either. 

It’s an interesting situation–where the possible redevelopment could lead to a much cleaner site, but at what cost to the rest of the neighborhood?  Unfortunately, there’s not much that can be done to prevent more condos from being built there, but we can make sure that the site is cleaned up comprehensively which would be a win for the environmental health of the neighborhood.

GP: I live right around the corner from the Nuhart plant so this clean-up is alarmingly close to my home.  I’ve seen the kinds of remediation being done at other sites and it’s scary: Drums of chemicals stored outside unguarded; 3ft piles of uncovered contaminated soil left out on the street for days… All of it makes me want to run to the hills, quite literally. Complaining to 311 is a total joke—it’s never done a damn thing.  I feel powerless. What can we do to ensure the safety of ourselves and our community given the severe lack of remediation enforcement?

Mike: I can totally understand and appreciate your frustration, but complaining to 311 and to the state DEC is still VERY useful, even though I know how it can feel pointless sometimes.   We need to push DEC and our elected officials to ensure that the remediation is not only done thoroughly, but also doesn’t put nearby residents or workers at risk. I know residents complained about other remedial projects, like the sludge tank, and we need to work together to make sure the same mistakes aren’t repeated at this and other sites.

GP: Voicing our concerns is great and all, but do you think really that makes a difference?

Mike: Totally–you know the old saying–the squeaky wheel gets the grease.  Look—the only way things are going to change is if neighbors come together and organize and fight for change.  That’s how we were able to secure money to renovate the McGolrick Park playground.  This comment period and public meeting coming up in early 2015 is a big opportunity to get one of the most toxic sites in Greenpoint cleaned up for good. We can either sit on the sidelines and complain that nothing can be changed, or we can come together as a community and put forth a vision of what Greenpointers think the clean-up should look like, and fight for it, to make our neighborhood a healthier place to live.

GP: Ok, now that you’ve got me feeling empowered, let me ask a rather delicate question: Who makes better coffee–Café Grumpy or Champion?

Mike: You know I’m not sure if I’ve ever been to Champion so I’ll have to say Grumpy (which I love – and those biscuits!), though I’m also a big fan of the cold brew at Homecoming on Franklin.

GP: And finally, what is your favorite part about living in Greenpoint that people might not know about.

McGolrick Park!  My girlfriend and I are lucky to live right across the street from it, and it’s such a beautiful park.

About Kim M

Kim is a native New Yorker, local activist and writer. When she's not writing books or playing Erin Brockovich with her Save Greenpoint peeps, you will see her whipping around Greenpoint on her bike, chatting it up with folks, and sharing stories about what it is about her hometown that makes life worth living. Follow her on twitter @kimasson or www.kimmassonwrites.com