Highly Toxic Site Planned for New School and Low-Income Housing

Well, this is a hot toxic mess–and a potentially dangerous one for residents and school children if not handled properly. At issue is a planned low-income housing development (950 units) plus a school on the grounds of a previous oil refinery in the area along the Gowanus Canal in New York City. The grounds beneath where the structures will be built are contaminated with highly toxic coal tar, a byproduct of oil refining (state environmental officials have reportedly found the dark viscous material, known locally as “black mayonnaise,” seeped as far down as 150 feet below the surface). And the problem doesn’t stop there. Coal tar contains other toxic chemicals like the ones present during fracking such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene (commonly known as BTEX) all of which have been linked with serious health conditions, including cancer. The area has also tested positive for Naphthalene (a compound used in mothballs) that can cause irritation and lead to nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea when inhaled. At issue is the fact that these toxic chemicals migrate–just because they are below the surface now doesn’t mean they are going to stay there. And when they move they can potentially contaminate the groundwater, the structures, and the air in and around the planned homes and school, causing a major health hazard for the occupants.

“If you put a structure like a school or a building, those compounds that are 8, 10, 15 feet down, they will volatilize. It might be in five years, it might be in 10 years, they will find a path and they will come inside the enclosed structure and they will build up.” -Christos Tsiamis, manager of the Gowanus Superfund cleanup

Herding Cats

In addition to the problem of building a housing development and school on top of a toxic waste site (city and developer plans indicate the planned school and some of the lowest-priced affordable units are slated to go at the corner of Fifth and Hoyt streets, right next to some of the most polluted sections of the old refinery site that once housed gas tanks), the other problem is that instead of a complete, full-scale cleanup (given the scope of the toxic mess, that might not even be possible for another hundred years or so), officials are hoping to “contain” a large portion of the toxins, cross their fingers and hope for the best. Part of this ‘containment’ plan involves installing a bulkhead along the adjacent canal to keep the toxins from seeping into the waterway. They will also need to dig coal tar extraction wells which the plans indicate will likely be installed below the area of a proposed 1.5-acre waterfront park adjacent to the affordable housing complex, because the viscous liquid will move down the slope and accumulate at the waterfront bulkhead.  Then, according to the cleanup manager, the toxic black chemical ooze will have to be pumped out of those capture facilities for years to come — which, unless it’s sealed off and properly maintained, can create foul odors and mess for the people living and going to school there. And to keep the poisonous materials from seeping into the housing and school buildings? Developers will have to install a vapor protection system to trap toxic materials below ground. source

Given the toxicity levels, the scope of the cleanup and ongoing maintenance to keep the toxic chemicals and vapors from oozing up and the potential public health risks involved, two questions come to mind: (1) Why are officials doing this? and (2) Why are low-income residents, potentially the most at-risk population in terms of having limited resources for proper diets and medical care, once again the target for such a potentially pernicious social experiment?


If you wish to contact city officials about their plans to build low-income homes and a school on top of a toxic waste site, according to the journalist investigating this story, the city agencies in charge of overseeing the project are the New York City Department of Housing and Preservation and the Department of City Planning

Source:   , The Brooklyn Paper