New York City is a super city. We have it all. But sometimes, having it all means warts-and-all, as is the case with the city’s three Federal Superfund sites. Superfund sites are areas designated by the federal government as hazardous toxic waste disposal sites. The Superfund program holds polluting manufactures liable for the waste their businesses leave behind, and provides compensation, cleanup and emergency response services for the environment and communities surrounding the sites. New York’s Federal Superfund sites — The Gowanus Canal, our very own Newtown Creek, and the Wolff-Alport chemical site in Ridgewood — are a potent reminder of the city’s industrial past, and, perhaps, a new cause celebre in Washington.
In late September, the EPA unveiled a $40 Million plan to clean up and redevelop the Wolff-Alport site, designated as a Superfund in 2014. In a July memo, the new head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, declared “the Superfund program is a cornerstone of the work that the EPA performs for citizens and communities across our country. My goal as Administrator is to restore the Superfund program to its rightful place at the center of the agency’s core mission.” It’s unclear how much of a goal that really is, given that Pruitt, a controversial appointee who believes that humans do not play a role in climate change, has also threatened to end E.P.A funding for the Department of Justice’s environmental work, which would hold the polluting manufacturers accountable.
Pruitt’s plan for the Wolff-Alport site calls for relocation of all tenants and businesses on the site, and demolition of all buildings. It’s not yet known where funding for the plan will come from. NPR reported that the project has secured just $650,000 of the 4 Million dollars it would require. Usually, a Superfund’s original polluters are responsible for funding the cleanup. For example, the Newtown Creek project has identified 6 polluters, and Gowanus Canal Project has 30 which can be compelled to provide funds.
But Wolff-Alport is different. The site has just one polluter, now defunct, which cannot provide funds: The Wolff-Alport Chemical Company, an enterprise central to the United States mid-20th century Atomic status. The factory opened in the 1920s and shuttered in the 1950s, but while the site was in operation, “workers processed monazite sand to extract rare earth metals – a highly toxic procedure. By the 1940s, the Atomic Energy Commission, the successor of the Manhattan Project, started buying radioactive thorium from the site.” Today, funding to clean up the site would come from the E.P.A’s coffers, but those funds have dwindled since the mid-90s, and cleanup projects across the country have languished.
Few neighborhoods in New York City live with as much residual industrial contamination as Greenpoint. The community organization Neighbors Allied for Good Growth has even compiled a ToxiCity Map, to explore environmental conditions in Greenpoint and Williamsburg. An interactive map of toxic hotspots in the neighborhood, the ToxiCity map uses data “from city, state and federal sources, guided by on-the-ground knowledge from local activists,” and explores “some neighborhood trends such as population density and asthma hospital visits.” Brooklyn Community Board 1 has over 1,000 sites that have reported to the EPA for state or federal environmental programs.
While there is a heartening culture of environmental activism here in Greenpoint, owing to the hard work of community activists and organizations like GCEF, Greening Greenpoint and the Curb Your Litter Project – all funded in part by the agents that contributed to the neighborhood’s environmental destruction, such as Exxon-Mobil – some of the contaminated sites have also taken on a surprising role as would-be hipster party spots.
Most famously, the Nuhart Plastics site (280 Franklin Street), a state-level superfund site, was chosen for an ill-begotten – and swiftly shuttered – rave on Halloween 2015. That event eventually cost the party’s promoters $150,000 in fines to the State of New York, but left them undeterred in the face of dangerous revelry: the same outfit tried to secure a liquor license for Brooklyn Mirage, a high voltage, high-capacity club at 111 Gardner Avenue in East Williamsburg, which was denied.
That brings us back to the Wolff-Alport site. The bar Nowadays (56-06 Cooper Avenue) sits adjacent to the site making it not only a hipster hotspot, but also a radioactive one. (The bar’s owners note emphatically that they have had the grounds tested and that the results were no more toxic than other sites throughout the city.) While it is easy to point to a hip bar and decry the folly of gentrifiers drinking on toxic waste, consider the other businesses, homes and community spaces – including a school – in close proximity to the site. As The New York Times reported this summer — the area might be a superfund, but for those who’ve built their communities or their businesses in its wake, its also a home and a livelihood. Alberto Rodriguez is the owner of Los Primos Auto Repair and Sale, one of six businesses slated for demolition under the EPA’s planned Wolff-Alport cleanup project. He told The New York Times, “when you move, you have to start again. The customers, they don’t follow you.” This is just one toll the city’s industrial past takes upon its current citizens. What is the most equitable solution when environmental justice can mean displacement?