Thursday, May 7, 2009
Questions Over Toxins on Proposed School Site
Civic Vows Legal Action Against City DOE
By Conor Greene
A month after the City Council approved a 1,100 seat high school in Maspeth, a local civic group continues to oppose the plan on the grounds that the proposed site is contaminated and not appropriate for the project.
The Juniper Park Civic Association is questioning the validity of City Council’s 38-10 vote on April 1, which gave the Department of Education the go-ahead to acquire the former Restaurant Depot site at 74th Street and 57th Avenue and move forward with the school. The $80 million project is intended to help provide desperately needed seats in the city’s most overcrowded district.
Specifically, the civic group is livid that the Environmental Impact Statement completed for the city wasn’t distributed to Community Board 5 or local community leaders. In addition, the report reviewed by City Council members before voting only contained a summary of the toxins found on the site and lacked information about specific levels.
“We’re saying that the City Council vote on April 2 was invalid because the council members didn’t see a [full report showing the exact] toxin levels,” said JPCA President Robert Holden. He noted that, despite also being a CB 5 member, he didn’t even receive the “sugar-coated” version of the report issued by the SCA until after the council vote. “We’re contending that we need an independent scientist to look at these figures.”
The JPCA opposed the project from the start because there already are two schools within three blocks of the site and due to congestion in the area. The proposal was also opposed by Community Board 5 (which eventually voted in favor of a resolution approving the school provided certain stipulations were met), Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) and the civic group Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together.
Holden said the civic group has sent a formal letter to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn requesting that an independent group, such as a local university, be allowed to review the report and issue an opinion. “If Quinn doesn’t do anything, we are exploring legal actions to file an… injunction saying the vote was invalid. How could they vote if they didn’t get full information on buying a toxic site? I would rather believe scientists than hired hands from the SCA.”
The SCA maintains the materials found at the site, which includes semi-volatile compounds and heavy metals such as mercury, are typical of most properties around the city. The vapor barrier system, which creates an air-tight seal between the building and ground, is a “precautionary system to ensure that these contaminants can never enter the school building,” according to DOE spokesman William Havemann. The fumes would be removed from the site through pipes leading to the building’s roof.
However, at its meeting last Thursday, a scientist working on behalf of the JPCA questioned the SCA’s method and said the site should be classified a brownfield and fully remediated with clean soil. “It’s really a no-brainer. These things are bad and if they migrate to the surface they will get your kids sick,” Dr. James Cervino told the audience. “I’m not up here grandstanding, I’m telling you that a plastic sheet and Home Depot fan isn’t going to protect your children.”
Dr. Cervino, of Pace University and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, later accused the SCA of making its decisions for the site based on money. “I think it’s egregious. It’s absolutely unthinkable that they would want to do something like this,” he said. “It’s all about money and not paying to remove the soil. It costs a lot of money to take the bad stuff out and bring clean fill in.”
He also ripped the process used by the SCA to reach this decision. “The number one problem I see with all these people who give approvals, with the powers that be, is that they’re just engineers,” said Cervino. “You need someone with training in environmental engineering and a degree in molecular biology [in order to have the] understanding of the sensitivity of human cells when exposed [to toxins]… If you have an understanding of how sensitive human cells are to the concentration of chemicals they want to leave there, any cancer specialist will tell you they are nuts.”
When asked if he would send his children to a school built on that property, Cervino responded, “Never in a million years.”
In a statement, the DOE stood by its process. “The Department of Education observes rigorous and very conservative standards in determining whether a site is suitable for school construction,” said Havemann. “Like all urban soil, the soil in Maspeth does contain some mild contaminants.”
Havemann accused the civic group – which has opposed a school at this site for a number of reasons – of using the issue of contaminated soil to create fear. “Some community members who strongly oppose the Maspeth High School are purposefully exaggerating the soil’s toxicity in order to stoke public fears and derail the project,” he wrote. “Parents in Maspeth and District 24 should know that the Maspeth High School will be completely safe for students and staff.” In response to claims that the site should be fully remediated, Havemann wrote: “Contrary to their assertions, soil remediation is not required at the Maspeth site, and would be a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
Crowley, who voted against the school but was criticized for not drumming up enough support from her colleagues to quash the plan, said the contamination issue wasn’t raised during hearings because cleaning up a former manufacturing site is “a given” within an urban setting. In a statement, she said the SCA must “purify the soil before they think about building a school on this property.”
On Tuesday, her chief of staff, Lydon Sleeper, said Crowley is requesting that the state Department of Environmental Conservation step in and review the city’s findings. “We want someone who is not a city organization or contracted by the city, which is why I think it’s important that the DEC come in and does it,” said Sleeper. “We want their view as to whether or not there should be remediation.”
However, despite the new questions over the site’s contamination, Sleeper doubts this will be enough to prevent the project from moving forward. “I don’t think this is enough to stop it. At the end of the day they are building a school on a [remediated] brownfield in the Bronx,” he said. “It may have delayed it for another month… but at the end of the day even the scientist is saying this is not a deal breaker… We want to get someone else looking at this who is accountable to the people and not accountable to the SCA. If they say there’s some cleanup needed, we’ll hold the SCA to that.”
At the JPCA meeting, State Senator Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) said he is considering pursing legislation that would require that stricter standards be followed for school construction at contaminated sites. “When you’re talking about health risks, the problem I have is that you are dealing with just one standard [for all projects],” he said.
And, despite the city’s assertions that the site is safe, Holden and many civic members remain unconvinced. “Of course we’re going to fight this. We’re not going to just take this” he told the audience in Our Lady of Hope last Thursday. “Information was withheld and toxic levels were withheld. These kids are going to be sitting there seven hours a day, nine months a year and we should give them a clean environment… All over the city, kids are getting sick. We don’t trust the city because they aren’t really looking out for us, or they wouldn’t have chosen this site to begin with.”