By Maria Rocha-Buschel
With a contaminant recovery plan having been proposed for Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, representatives from the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) addressed concerns of residents last week at a public meeting.
This included making assurances that wells the DEC and Con Edison plan to build in ST/PCV to collect the leftover chemicals so they can be disposed of wouldn’t be intrusive. Con Ed has been working with DEC on what’s been referred to as a “remediation” for the site, which was once home to a manufactured gas plant (MGP).
The DEC had actually directed Con Edison to begin remediation for this project back in 2011. However, DEC project manager Doug MacNeal said during the meeting that the process was delayed for the last five years because of the changes in ownership at ST/PCV.
MacNeal said that exact locations haven’t been determined for the wells yet, but Council Member Dan Garodnick, who was also at the meeting, which held at Beth Israel last Wednesday, said that he would push DEC to site them as far away as possible from doors, windows and playgrounds.
One possible location for the wells, of which there will be 10 in Peter Cooper and six in Stuy Town, would be inside the garages. Meeting attendees burst into laughter when geologist and DEC project manager Gardiner Cross said that this was because the garages already have good ventilation. However, MacNeal backed up his statement, explaining that to be up to code, a garage has to have a functional ventilation system. If it doesn’t, he added, residents should contact DEC.
“What comes out of a car exhaust system is far more dangerous than what will come out of these wells,” he said. “By code, the ventilation system is way more overdesigned than what we need for the wells.”
He added that although the ventilation in the garages is a plus, they aren’t necessarily an ideal location for the wells because of dealing with traffic when trying to check them.
Regarding when the wells would be checked, MacNeal said that they would be inspected more frequently when they are first installed so that workers can get an idea about how often they should be checked, based on how much of the contaminant is collected. He noted that the workers could come as frequently as weekly at first but this would likely taper off to monthly and in some cases, every six months.
Some residents were concerned about exposure to the contaminants when workers come to remove the drums inside the wells used to collect the chemicals, but MacNeal said that exposure to the outside air is minimal and if vapor from the contaminant does get out, it dissipates quickly.
MacNeal noted that there are some buildings that have traces of the contaminant underneath the basements and in this case, DEC did air testing rather than drill into the buildings, but determined there was no risk of exposure this way.
“If it was coming in, we would know immediately because it really stinks,” he said.
“It smells like naphthalene, like moth balls,” DOH public health engineer Dawn Hettrick added. “But it’s not a significant enough amount that anyone would even smell it.”
In terms of the construction for the wells, Cross said that it would likely take a few months, with each well taking a couple of days to install. A start date has not been announced yet.
Con Edison is financially responsible for the remediation because it is the successor to the company that previously operated the MGPs. Neither Cross nor MacNeal could confirm what the budget for the project is, but Con Ed will be hiring a contractor and DEC will oversee the installation and maintenance of the wells along with officials from DOH.
The remediation is to prevent potential exposure to chemicals left behind from the MGP days, prior to the construction of ST/PCV, covering two thirds of what is now Peter Cooper at East 21st Street but also in Stuyvesant Town by East 14th Street.
The substances that were produced are mainly benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene (BTEX) compounds and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). BTEX compounds are found in most petroleum products such as gasoline. PAHs are also found petroleum products, as well as in products such as asphalt, grilled meats, rubber and anything that has been charred.
The plants operated between the mid-1800s and the mid-1900s to convert coal and oil into gas for heating, cooking and lighting, prior to the development of natural gas distribution systems. The “coal tar” waste that resulted from this process often leaked into the soil in the surrounding area and previous investigations in 2006 and 2008 determined that contaminants were present, but all impacts were at least five feet below ground and the vast majority were 10 feet or deeper. DEC said risk of exposure is low, but the agency has also said remediation is necessary to prevent future exposure.
An additional worry from residents was that Hurricane Sandy had spread soil contaminants that were underground, but according to the DEC, despite much of the neighborhood being flooded, it did not.
Additionally, Cross said the agency looked into the possible spread of the chemicals following the storm and found no evidence that the flooding mobilized the contaminants to a wider area.
“The subsurface (where the contaminants are) doesn’t react to short-term weather events,” he said. “It was four or five days of elevated groundwater and then everything went back to normal.”
Cross noted that one of the only impacts that Hurricane Sandy had on the project was the subsequent flood wall that is planned for the area. DEC has examined the impact of the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project and the deep underground construction that will be necessary to build the wall. DEC is working with representatives for the ESCR and other city agencies to make sure that the drilling doesn’t interfere with points of contamination.
“We’re working with City Planning near Peter Cooper Village and Jacob Riis by East 10th Street and looking into additional tar collection wells so that construction doesn’t mobilize the contaminant,” he said.
Public comments will be accepted through December 1 and can be submitted to MacNeal at firstname.lastname@example.org or 625 Broadway, Albany, NY, 12233.