The School Construction Authority (SCA) is opting instead for a belowground barrier and protective seal designed to trap the contaminated soil and soil vapor beneath the planned $80 million school, slated to replace an abandoned restaurant depot on 57th Avenue and 74th Street in Maspeth.
Elected officials and scientists began voicing alarm when the SCA, the Department of Education’s (DOE) building agency, released an environmental assessment study on the site last month that found it has levels of volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds, and toxic metals such as lead and mercury, that far exceed state safety standards. In some cases exposure to these contaminants has been known to cause cancer.
At the time the study was made public in mid-April- two weeks after the city council voted to approve the school site- the DOE insisted that it would have been all but impossible to find a site in the city of New York without some traces of contaminated soil; that the contamination levels at the Maspeth site are relatively low compared with other sites across the city; and that they will be dealt with accordingly by the SCA’s building plans.
While it is true the site in Maspeth is less dirty than others the SCA has built schools on in recent years, critics of the SCA’s citing policies insist clean sites do exist, and expressed worry the authority is moving forward with plans to build the school without removing the contaminated soil.
“Several community members, professors and scientists have expressed serious concern over the levels of toxins located at the site,” Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley wrote in a May 5 letter to the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
Crowley led a city council movement against approving the school because the DOE would not agree to give Maspeth students enrollment priority. During the months the city’s school zoning policy was being debated, neither Crowley nor any other city council members opposed to the school addressed environmental issues surrounding the site at length. However, since the report was released, Crowley has asked the DEC to consider a full environmental remediation.
The SCA contracted STV Inc. to conduct a study of the site that was completed, in two phases, between May of 2007 and March of 2008.
Using information gathered from a subsurface soil investigation, soil vapor survey and ambient air survey to measure ground and air pollution, STV. Inc established that the first layer of earth beneath the site- reaching a depth of 12 feet, and characterized as Urban Land Complex, for its density of human-related waste deposited there over time- contains a wide range of contaminants.
They include semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs) such as benzo(a)anthracene, chrysene and benzo(a)pyrene, among others. The toxins found in five of ten soil samples exceed the state DEC’s Technical and Administrative Guidance Memorandum (TAGM) Recommended Soil Cleanup Objectives and, in some but not all cases, the DEC’s Brownfield Cleanup Program (BCP) Soil Cleanup Program Objectives.
TAGM and BCP are the leading state guidelines for measuring contamination.
The study also found levels of mercury and lead, among other metals, that are much higher- in the case of mercury as much as five times higher- than the accepted state and Eastern USA Background safety guidelines.
What all this means, said James Cervino, a professor at Pace University and scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, is that future students at the school could face serious health risks if exposed to these toxins. Cervino said this could happen even with the city’s barrier system in place.
“What I can tell you is that if you’re exposed to those levels they want to leave there, its published that can lead to cancer,” said Cervino, noting that, because people absorb environmental toxins differently, it is not possible to predict exactly what their effect might be. “New York City better get serious with cancer. We have to review all the sites we’re allowing schools to be built on.”
Cervino said a clean up of the site in Maspeth would not be difficult, though it would be an admission by the SCA that their school citing policies are flawed. Cervino was a member of a group of concerned community leaders that in 2007 convinced the SCA to strengthen some environmental safety measures before beginning construction on a new school near Queens Hospital Center.
Councilman John Liu said there are clean sites in Queens the SCA could have chosen for a new school- such as one he has long fought for in Flushing- and other school projects where the SCA was forced to do an environmental clean up before starting construction.
“There are places in other parts of the city where toxic cleanups were actually required before the SCA could site a school,” Liu told the Queens Ledger. “I think the SCA is not searching for the best sites possible and in many ways are just taking the easy way out.” Liu said this applied to the choice of the site in Maspeth.
In a statement, DOE Spokesman Will Havemann defended the SCA’s decision that a below-ground barrier would be enough to protect students from exposure to “some mild contaminants” found at the site, which he characterized as common to all urban soil.
“The Maspeth High School will be equipped with a precautionary barrier system to ensure that these contaminants can never enter the school building,” Havemann said.
In unusually strong language, Havemann accused community members opposed to the school of “purposefully exaggerating the soil's toxicity in order to stoke public fears about the project.”
“Soil remediation is completely unnecessary at the Maspeth site, and would be a waste of taxpayer dollars,” Havemann continued. “Families in Maspeth and District 24 should know that the Maspeth High School will be completely safe for students and staff.”
In an interview Councilwoman Crowley said so far the SCA’s reassurances have not been enough. She said she would continue pressing the state to intervene in the matter.
“For me to rest assured I want to see the SCA remove what they know is toxic. They haven’t agreed to that,” Crowley said. A full remediation “would likely be a fraction of the total cost of the overall project,” she added. “If that fraction is going to give the community peace of mind, [the SCA should] just bite the bullet and get the job done.”