Super Toxic

Rising sea levels and new weather phenomena portend an uncertain future for New York City’s Superfund Sites.

Last year, Time Out magazine declared Ridgewood, Queens, the coolest neighborhood in North America and the fourth coolest in the world. Ridgewood, incidentally, happens to be home to the former Wolff-Alport Chemical Company, one of four Superfund sites in New York City. The company—which manufactured thorium, a chemical used in the production of nuclear energy and sold it to the federal government in the 1940s—vacated the site in 1954, leaving the area radioactive. Sites designated under the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) federal Superfund program are among the country’s most contaminated, their hazardous waste posing major risks to human health. In addition to the Wolff- Alport site, New York’s Superfund sites include the hundred-foot wide, 1.8-mile-long Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn (the city’s most notorious); Newtown Creek, located on the Brooklyn-Queens border, between Greenpoint and Long Island City; and the Meeker Avenue Plume, which spans several city blocks and is the largest, most residential, and newest (it was designated in March of 2022).

The five boroughs contain another sixty Superfund sites recorded in a separate registry: the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (NYSDEC) list, which includes sites slated for investigation, remediation, or management. As climate change causes more frequent natural disasters, like flooding and hurricanes, and because New York City is already highly vulnerable to sea-level rise, these sites’ potential to spread contaminants into neighboring communities is rising steadily. The EPA only began exploring climaterelated action on nonprioritized Superfund sites in 2021, and the complex system for recognition of contaminated sites, the tedious processes for determining clean-up plans, and the often drawn-out mitigation efforts all increase the likelihood of these sites becoming more dangerous due to climate change. Despite its explorations, the EPA hasn’t integrated climate adaptation measures into any remediation plans for the city’s Superfund sites, even as some of the neighborhoods surrounding them continue to fill with new residents.

The city’s federal Superfund sites had climate-related vulnerabilities before they even got Superfund status. And seeking the status might not immediately help to resolve them, since the process for federal recognition is complicated and lengthy. Potential sites require the public to petition for an EPA assessment. If that petition is approved, the EPA conducts a site inspection and scores the site using a hazard ranking system. Only then can a site be added to the EPA’s National Priorities List. The procedure for receiving funding for site remediation is even more convoluted: money for cleanup can come from the EPA, federal funds, state funds, or fines against responsible parties—or, more often, a mixture of all of the above. Even once a site is declared and funding secured, it can still take years or even decades before it is cleaned up. Resiliency efforts, typically, are not included in the cleanup plan. In addition to obtaining recognition and securing funding, stewards of Superfund sites have to engage the community, which can prove challenging. “Sometimes communities may not want designated Superfunds in their neighborhood,” Ana Navas-Acien, director of the Columbia Northern Plains Superfund Research Program, explains. “Owners might be worried about what the stigma of a Superfund site will do to their property value, despite needing the resources and cleanup efforts.” The Gowanus Canal encountered this issue, with developers fighting against its Superfund status. “The city and development community had been looking at Gowanus as an area to develop for a long time, so there was concern about what [a Superfund site] would do to the neighborhood,” Andrea Parker, executive director at Gowanus Canal Conservancy, says.

Despite initial pushback, the Gowanus Canal was declared a Superfund site in 2009, with dredging and capping to remove contaminated sediment and divert groundwater away from the contaminated area beginning in 2017. The EPA expects that it will take at least a decade to get rid of high levels of contaminants in the canal’s sediments, which include a mix of raw sewage, oil, coal, chemicals like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and polychlorinated biphenyls (by-products of burning coal, oil, gas, or now-banned chemical compounds formerly used in industrial and consumer products), and heavy metals that include mercury, lead, arsenic, and copper—all colloquially known as “black mayonnaise” among New Yorkers. The overall cleanup plan will cost more than $1.5 billion.

Meanwhile, the city is still working out details and crunching numbers to boost resiliency efforts in the flood-prone neighborhood, which will easily end up costing several millions more. Prepping the neighborhood for climate change could take more than a decade, though there’s no guarantee that the planet will afford the city that much time. “It would be great if the EPA’s purview also included restoration and resiliency measures, but that’s just not what they’re there for,” says Parker. To make up for the EPA’s shortcomings, the community is pushing to hold the city accountable for completing Cloudburst Resiliency Planning Studies for the area, which provide insight into ways to advance climate resiliency projects and traditional stormwater solutions in order to mitigate inland flooding. Additionally, current Army Corps studies on flood resilience across the region propose things like storm surge gates, though residents like Parker consider it to be a band-aid solution instead of a proper fix.

While cleanup of the Gowanus Canal is moving per the EPA’s timeline expectations, the city’s other Superfund sites haven’t been as fortunate. The EPA’s cleanup plan for Newtown Creek, which gained Superfund status in 2010, was slated to be released in 2023 but has now been pushed back until 2028. “We’re looking at a cleanup that might not be completed until the 2040s, which is very concerning,” said Willis Elkins, executive director of the Newtown Creek Alliance. “In terms of the risks and impacts of climate change, an issue we saw with Hurricane Sandy that’s definitely going to increase with sea level rise and storm surges is contaminated water from the Superfund site flooding into people’s basements and buildings.” The creek’s community advisory group has asked the EPA to offer insight into how its plan will address climate-related impacts, but so far the group hasn’t gotten any clear answers.

PER NONPROFIT ENVIRONMENTAL organization Riverkeeper’s 2018 Newtown Creek Vision plan, Hurricane Sandy resulted in a rise in the waters of Newtown Creek: streets and sites along the banks of the waterway flooded. “The aftermath of the storm saw hazardous materials and solid waste pushed far up into the surrounding community, and building, warehouse, and facility damage from which the community is still recovering,” noted the plan. The area’s antiquated wastewater system, in which storm drains below the streets connect to sewer pipes from residences and businesses, has limited capacity, and as little as one-tenth of an inch of rain can overflow the sewers and eventually discharge directly into the Superfund creek. Worsening climate change will only continue to exacerbate this problem.

Another issue for Newtown Creek is a nearby state Superfund site, the Greenpoint Energy Center, both highly toxic and still in use by National Grid. “There’s intense contamination there, and we’re concerned about how that is seeping into the creek,” says Elkins. “For years, we’ve been waiting for NYSDEC and National Grid to finalize their remediation plan. They even had to close a baseball field near the site due to toxic exposure. But there is still [the Cooper Park] public housing just a block away.” The nearby Meeker Avenue Plume is also believed to be contributing to the contamination of Newtown Creek, but it awaits a full EPA investigation to determine the extent of toxicity and potential ways to address it. Per EPA estimates, anywhere from seventeen to thirty million gallons of oil have seeped into the soil at the Meeker Avenue Plume and Newtown Creek sites, resulting in highly contaminated groundwater when the area floods from storms.

Nonetheless, neighborhoods like Gowanus and Greenpoint have continued to rapidly gentrify. Since being declared a Superfund site, the area near the Gowanus Canal has welcomed a Whole Foods supermarket and several high-end bars and restaurants. A city-led rezoning will lead to the construction of more than 8,000 new market-rate and “affordable” apartments in the formerly primarily industrial neighborhood. Greenpoint, home to two of Brooklyn’s three Superfund sites and one of the city’s most threatened waterfront communities, was among the most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods in the city from 1990 to 2014, according to a study from NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. “It’s hard to say if one thing exclusively causes another, but there’s going to be a lot of new residents coming into Gowanus over the next decade,” says Parker. “It’s going to be both a challenge and an opportunity to make sure that new folks are integrated into the community in a way that feels manageable while protecting the long-term health and resiliency of the neighborhood and the water body.”

RIDGEWOOD, FOR ITS PART, is also growing in popularity. The Wolff-Alport site was designated a Superfund site in 2013, and in 2017 the EPA finalized a cleanup plan that called for the relocation of all tenants on the site and the demolition of all buildings before digging up and removing contaminated soil and sewer sediment could begin. Meanwhile, the historically working-class neighborhood continues to gentrify, with trendy new bars and restaurants popping up and interest growing from nearby Bushwick and Williamsburg residents looking for less expensive housing. While Ridgewood’s risk for severe flooding over the next thirty years is relatively low, the site, where cleanup is not yet underway, exposes nearby residents to health risks due to its radioactivity.

The EPA, NYSDEC, academic partners like LaGuardia College, and local organizations all continue to conduct research regarding the implications of climate change and Superfund sites. They share a concern over the potential for toxic spread due to factors like flooding, sea level rise, and heat waves. Both the EPA and NYSDEC acknowledge that flooding due to climate change and the resulting rise in sea level is a primary concern in the potential spread of toxic matter and also in the effort to clean up the site. But current plans to reduce things like sewage overflow near Newtown Creek rely on outdated rainfall data, potentially causing inadequate solutions. “There’s a real critical need to increase preparedness and be able to protect and facilitate the spread of pollution from Superfund sites to communities,” says Navas-Acien. Thus far, it appears that there isn’t enough action being taken to prevent toxic spread at these sites, leaving it up to the community and local organizations to propose solutions and garner support from the government.

“Some people would say that there could be a dilution effect, which in a way could help with cleaning since it would spread the pollution over much broader areas, resulting in lower levels of contamination,” explains Navas-Acien. However, in a city like New York, the high population density (now approaching 30,000 people per square mile) creates potential for many more people to be exposed to contaminants through things like vapor intrusion and worsened water quality, with the full potential for harm in the wake of climate change not yet fully understood. Full remediation is the best way to help offset the negative health impacts of Superfund sites on surrounding communities, but the length of the processes and the unknown future impact of climate change mean that even sites that undergo ideal remediation still pose a contamination risk. And with state Superfund sites far outnumbering federal ones, outcomes could be worse than reports predict.

The EPA is working to provide greater monitoring of air and water quality, while local groups are pushing for community education and outreach, as well as frequent health screenings, to prepare New Yorkers. The Bronx, home to three state Class 2 sites, signifying the disposal of matter that poses a significant threat to public health or the environment, has poverty levels higher than other boroughs and some of the city’s worst air pollution due to the high number of trucks that pass through the borough daily. Regardless of the many challenges, local organizations like Newtown Creek Alliance and Gowanus Canal Conservancy continue educating the community through advisory groups and public meetings; helping residents get proper testing in their homes and businesses to determine what their exposure levels might be; advocating for greater public input into decision-making; and working with local elected officials to hold federal and state agencies accountable.

“It’s extremely important that we petition for better health care in vulnerable communities,” says Navas-Acien. “Human preparedness is a major part of improving resiliency, especially where flooding and sea level rise is a growing threat. Superfund sites already increase the possibility of conditions like diabetes, respiratory conditions, and cancers, so creating a support network, in tandem with advocating for government response can help prepare for both short and long term.” While the repercussions of climate change as it relates to the city’s Superfund sites may not be fully understood, New Yorkers should likely prepare for the worst.

Ameena Walker is a New York City–based writer who covers architecture, design, real estate, and neighborhoods.