The Trump administration is taking on its first Superfund cleanup in New York City – that is, assuming it has the money.
Last month, a $40 million plan to remediate a radioactive site in Queens where highly toxic materials were once poured into city sewers was unveiled by local officials of the Environmental Protection Agency. Known as Wolff-Alport for the chemical firm that was once located there, the site sits on an industrial stretch in the Ridgewood neighborhood of Queens. About three-quarters of an acre in size, the site currently houses a deli, an auto-shop and four other businesses. The E.P.A. counts a public school, a bar and some 300 residences within the site’s immediate vicinity.
Wolff-Alport, the newest of the city’s three designated Superfunds, was added to the E.P.A.’s Superfund priority list in 2014. The move came after surveys identified radioactivity throughout the property, including below public sidewalks and streets and in nearby sewers.
Going after such sites has been declared a priority for new E.P.A. administrator Scott Pruitt, a former attorney general of Oklahoma whose views on the environment make him one of the President’s most controversial appointees. Before assuming the post, Pruitt sued the agency repeatedly and still maintains that climate change is not the result of human activity.
But if he’s a climate change doubter, Pruitt has proclaimed himself a Superfund believer. In a memo this summer, Pruitt wrote: “My goal as Administrator is to restore the Superfund program to its rightful place at the center of the agency’s core mission.”
Judith Enck, former regional E.P.A. administrator for New York who pushed to get Wolff-Alport on the Superfund list, said she remains skeptical of Pruitt’s public declarations in support of cleaning up these hazardous waste sites.
“You can’t be the E.P.A. administrator and not stand for anything,” Enck said. “So he’s latched on to Superfunds. But at the same time, he’s cutting the budget, so it kind of rings hollow.”
President Donald J. Trump has proposed cutting $327 million – or around a third – of the nation’s annual Superfund budget. At the same time, Pruitt is also seeking to end the E.P.A.’s financial support to the Department of Justice, which holds the polluters of these hazardous waste sites accountable.
Regardless, spokeswoman for the E.P.A Tayler Covington, said that the agency is committed to cleaning up Wolff-Alport.
“There are no plans to change any of the cleanups for the three New York City Superfund sites,” said Covington. “We are in the budgetary process and final funding levels will not be settled until Congress acts.”
But experts on the Superfund program contend that even the current funding levels are still well below what is needed to clean up the nation’s many contaminated sites.
The E.P.A. announced the cleanup plan for Wolff-Alport in late September. The site’s remediation calls for all tenants to be permanently relocated, all buildings to be demolished and sewers to be replaced. The contaminated soil will be transported to a waste landfill.
All told, the cleanup will cost $39.9 million. But exactly where those funds will come from remains a question.
The E.P.A. maintains an account for each Superfund site in which money allocated for the cleanup is held. The Wolff-Alport-designated bank account currently holds just a little over $650,000, Thomas Mongelli, E.P.A. project manager of the site, told WNYC.
Usually, it’s the original polluters who are responsible for picking up the tab for cleanups.
At Newtown Creek, a heavily polluted waterway that borders Brooklyn and Queens, six potentially responsible polluters have been identified. The Gowanus Canal in southern Brooklyn has more than 30 known polluters. Wolff-Alport, on the other hand, is considered in E.P.A. terminology an “orphan," which means that the original polluter is defunct and can’t be relied upon for payment.
“There is a good chance that most of this money is going to need to come from the federal Superfund program and federal Superfund is running on fumes,” Enck said.
Beginning in the 1980s, a tax on Superfund polluters amassed funds for cleanup in a trust account. But that provision expired around 1995, and the account has since languished. Although there are no official estimates of the cost to clean up all of the country’s polluted sites, Kate Probst, author of a report to Congress, “Superfund’s Future: What Will It Cost?," said the $280 million account balance is woefully insufficient.
Although annual congressional appropriations for Superfunds were meant to compensate for the trust account’s decline, these appropriations have also steadily dwindled. Federal contributions for Superfund cleanup have fallen from $2.1 billion in 1999, to an annual budget of $1.2 billion by 2013, according to the Office of Government Accountability.
This shortfall has stunted the cleanup work at the nation’s most contaminated sites, Probst said. “If they had more money, they probably would have cleaned up more sites, or gotten construction completed on more sites. We know the number of cleanups are slowing,” she said, adding that she expects there will be more disruptions due to the funding shortages. “That is the tip of the iceberg," Probst said.
City officials are also worried that the feds may be low-balling the costs of cleaning up Wolff-Alport. In an August letter to the E.P.A., Haley Stein, a lawyer with the city’s law department, stated that the city “believes that E.P.A. significantly underestimates the cost and feasibility of implementing its preferred alternative."
City officials declined to detail the reasons for their skepticism.
At an E.P.A. meeting about the site in Queens this summer, a handful of residents also expressed concerns about the Trump administration’s plan to cut the Superfund budget and how that would affect Wolff-Alport’s cleanup.
Walter Mugdan, acting deputy regional administrator for E.P.A. region 2, was frank in his response.
"Do I know how this site will rank against others? I don’t," Mugdan told residents, according to a transcript of the meeting. "But I do know radioactive materials are [a] serious concern and what we do know is that people are actually being exposed.”
Indeed, The New Yorker, citing government findings, dubbed Wolff-Alport, “The most radioactive place in New York City," in a 2014 video story, which recounts the site’s fascinating history.
In the 1920s, business partners Harry Wolff and Max Alport founded the Wolff-Alport Chemical Company. At the factory, workers processed monazite sand to extract rare earth metals – a highly toxic procedure. By the 1940s, the Atomic Energy Commission, the successor of the Manhattan Project, started buying radioactive thorium from the site. In the 1950s, the factory shuttered.
Norman Kleiman, director of the Eye Radiation and Environmental Research Laboratory at Columbia University, said the E.P.A. had an obligation to clean up the site. Radiation there is "well above the average terrestrial exposure even in New York City,” Kleinman told WNYC.
"People are especially concerned about exposure,” Kleinman added, “and from a public policy and public health point of view, it’s important to allay fear."
He said risks to passersby and casual visitors to the site are likely minimal, however. "We get radiation from the sun, from the stars, so we live and are bathed in a radioactive world,”Kleinman said.
But for those who labor at the site everyday, the risks associated with Wolff-Alport’s radiation are higher.
On a sunny, autumn afternoon, Alberto Rodriguez, owner of Los Primos Auto Body Repair and Sale, was especially busy with cars to fix. His shop is one of the businesses that the E.P.A. has said will need to relocate.
Rodriguez said he has yet to hear from the federal agency as to when he has to move or how much compensation he’ll receive.
He’s also concerned about the years he’s spent at the radioactive site.
“I’m worried because this doesn’t just happen immediately, especially things like cancer,” Rodriguez, who is originally from the Dominican Republic, said in Spanish. “It happens over time.”
Over the years, there were numerous warnings about the site’s toxicity. In the 1980s, the E.P.A. reviewed the old chemical site but did not take immediate action. But in 2012, a report by the federal Department of Health and Human Services found that “pedestrians who frequently use the sidewalks of Irving Avenue may have an elevated cancer risk from exposure to ionizing radiation.”
After reading that report, Enck said she rushed to convene city, state and E.P.A. officials to begin working on a cleanup plan. “It seems like government agencies knew about the contamination for quite a long time,” Enck said.
In 2014, the E.P.A. installed large steel and concrete slabs over hotspots where radioactive waste remains buried.
The federal agency estimates that the cleanup will take 17 months – a pretty quick timeline. One of Pruitt’s main priorities at Superfunds is redevelopment, and he says his first goal in this effort is “expediting cleanup.”
But this focus on speed and development has some environmental experts concerned.
“I, like many people, was struck by the number of recommendations that had to do with redevelopment and reuse,” Probst said, referring to Pruitt’s Superfund task force. “Are they going to decrease cleaning standards? To the extent that you’re allocating funds to redevelopment and reuse, and you don’t have as much money as you need, it’s a zero sum game – if they’re going to reuse, they’re not going to something else.”
Besides being an “orphan” in the technical sense, Wolff-Alport is also an orphan in terms of neighborhood concern. There are few residents involved at the site and no organized community groups.
While the other two city Superfunds – Newtown Creek and Gowanus Canal – are farther along in the cleanup process, residents and nonprofits are monitoring the work there.
For example, the Gowanus Canal has an active community advisory groupand residents who meet regularly to discuss the site.
Katia Kelly, who lives nearby, runs a blog where she chronicles the stages of the Gowanus’s cleanup.
“If residents are involved and care enough to take part in the process, cleanups move forward quicker,” Kelly said. “We still try to have the community’s voice heard against the special interest groups and organizations.”