In the coming months, 5,600 cubic yards of soil contaminated with toxic chemicals beneath the Riis Houses complex is set to be excavated and removed — a task years in the making that will finally end a threat lurking there since a 19th century gas plant shut down at the site decades ago.
But there’s a catch: digging into that soil can affect tenants at the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) development in the Lower East Side, a review by THE CITY found.
During construction related to upgrades in the last two years necessitated by Hurricane Sandy damage, air monitors regularly registered dust from the tainted soil drifting throughout the development, records show. And tenants say that dust made its way into their apartments — and they are fearful this will happen again.
THE CITY’s examination of 6,000 pages of weekly reports found the air monitors set up both upwind and downwind from the Sandy work registered dust exceedances on at least 88 occasions over 68 separate days from August 2020 through mid-January.
Sometimes dust was kicked up in high winds or by passing trucks and excavators as workers cut trenches to lay pipe or electrical cable. On one late December 2020 day, monitors recorded dust exceedance for an “extended period.” On a day in July 2021, monitors detected excessive levels of dust “throughout the day.” On many occasions the devices registered elevated levels of dust “several” times within a week, the records show.
“All the dust is in our apartments. All of it,” Daphne Williams, Riis’ tenant association president, told THE CITY. “It comes through the window. You have to wipe your windows down every week because of all the dust coming in.”
Williams said during the Sandy work she told the workers, “Once you disturb that, you’re disturbing the soil and then the air quality we have.” The dirt, she said, “wasn’t covered. I used to ask them to put the tarp over the dirt when you leave on the weekends or wet it or do something. They would do that sometimes, but most of the time it was just blowing freely.”
Joel Kupferman, a lawyer who specializes in environmental law and has criticized the state’s oversight of the Riis soil removal plans, told THE CITY that the air monitors’ consistent detection of dust exceedances during the Sandy work is cause for concern.
“That means it’s a major health threat,” Kupferman said. “It’s being breathed in. It’s going into the windows. And we saw kids playing in the soil.”
Douglas MacNeal, section chief of the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)’s environmental remediation division, noted that the air monitors also tested for volatile organic compounds at the site and detected no toxins in the air.
But DEC officials concede that they did not test the particulate matter generated by the dust kicked up during the Sandy work for toxicity. The dust monitors are designed to pick up any particulate matter in the air without classification about toxicity, but if dust exceedance is detected work is supposed to stop.
The stop-work protocol helps ensure that elevated air levels of VOCs and dust are unlikely to travel offsite and persist on a long-term basis, DEC officials said.
In an interview with THE CITY, MacNeal insisted that the materials of concern are far enough below the surface that there was no danger during the Hurricane Sandy work and won’t be going forward in the upcoming remediation project at Riis.
PAH and BTEX
But soil tests taken over the last decade have revealed the presence of toxins in some sections of Riis just one foot below ground surface.
The former gas plant on the Riis grounds generated a dense, oily liquid called coal tar that lingers below ground to this day. The tar contains a “family of chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)” and a combination of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene known as BTEX that at certain concentrations is considered hazardous waste, according to a DEC report on manufactured gas plants in New York.
In 2004 those types of chemicals turned up at levels above what’s deemed acceptable in 33 soil samples taken less than a foot below the surface at the eastern edge of Riis where a gas holder, tar separator and fuel tank from the plant were once located, according to June 2020 report by a consultant hired by Con Ed.
The 2004 test included soil samples taken from inside a Riis building that has an unusual feature shared by many NYCHA properties: basement floors that consist of exposed dirt.
DEC officials concede that toxins that remain in the soil could seep upwards in vapor form and enter the buildings. The state recently recommended that NYCHA cap any exposed dirt floors at Riis with concrete “to ensure that elevated concentrations of site-related contaminants in sub-slab vapor do not affect the indoor air quality in the future.”
The DEC had in past years tested the air in one of the Riis basements with a dirt floor for signs of “soil vapor intrusion.” Those tests detected no vapor levels of concern, but no tests for soil vapor have been made since 2019. Asked if DEC plans more such tests, MacNeal said, “Not at this time. We haven’t seen any additional changes.”
Last week when THE CITY visited Riis, uncapped dirt floors could be seen in the basements of two Riis buildings in the location where the gas plant used to be. Asked about the state’s recommendation to cap dirt floors to foil soil vapor intrusion, NYCHA officials said they’ve recently begun capping all the dirt floors there as part of an unrelated program to stymie rat burrows. Work to cap floors in some of the buildings, however, won’t begin until October at the earliest.
MacNeal of DEC emphasized that the bulk of the worrisome chemicals generated by the former gas plant are well below the surface at Riis.
“Those concentrations [of toxins] are found at depth. It’s not an immediate exposure concern,” MacNeal told THE CITY. “If we found that there was an exposure concern back in [earlier tests in] 2007, we would have told Con Ed and NYCHA immediately.”
But MacNeal noted, “Even if it’s not a human threat, the division’s mission is to clean up contamination that is a threat to both public health and the environment. It’s not a threat to human health but it is a threat to the environment.”
Officials have known about underground toxins at Riis for 20 years, dating to August 2002 when Con Ed — the successor to Consolidated Gas Co., which once ran the gas plant there — entered into a voluntary settlement to clean up the site.
The source of the potential carcinogens has origins dating to before the Civil War, when Consolidated Gas began burning coal there to generate gas to power New York City’s street lights. The gas was stored in massive tanks built upon fill at what was then the edge of the East River.
During the plant’s operation, the number and size of these tanks expanded, with some holding up to 1 million cubic feet of gas. The bottoms of the original tanks were likely constructed with substandard materials that allowed coal tar to seep into the soil, state environmental officials believe.
As electricity replaced gas as the primary source of power, the plant shut down in 1933. The land, permeated with toxins, remained vacant until 1947 when the remaining tanks were demolished and NYCHA began building what would ultimately become the Riis Houses. Five of the development’s eight buildings were built right on top of the plume of coal tar left behind by the gas plant, state officials say.
In the 1990s, state environmental officials began to look into the potential environmental harm caused by the below-ground legacy of abandoned gas plant sites across New York. By 2000, DEC staff realized the scope of this lingering toxicity and adopted a policy of soil removal at and around any known site. By then the number of sites had grown from 90 to 235. Riis was on the list.
The soil there has been tested several times since, revealing that the toxins below ground continue to permeate the soil, have tainted groundwater below the development, and are currently migrating underground slowly toward the East River.
The project to remove what’s still there is Con Ed’s responsibility, while DEC will monitor the work, making sure rules are followed that are designed to protect residents who live at Riis and the workers performing the tasks.
High Levels of Mistrust
For the residents of Riis Houses, this latest project might give them reason to think the stars are aligned against them.
In 2012, Superstorm Sandy destroyed several Riis apartments and knocked out heat, hot water and electricity for weeks. NYCHA then spent years ripping up the development’s grounds to install storm-resistant infrastructure — an effort that is only now wrapping up.
Then last fall a scandal erupted over the quality of Riis’ drinking water. After fielding a flurry of tenant complaints about cloudy water, NYCHA ordered tests that at first registered the presence of arsenic in the water. A week later NYCHA reversed course and said there actually was no arsenic — infuriating residents who were told the water was unsafe.
Now comes the latest challenge to Riis tenants’ sense of well-being: The planned removal of toxic soil.
Between Hurricane Sandy, arsenic, coal tar and years of NYCHA’s overall mismanagement, there now exists a high level of mistrust between many of Riis’ 2,500 residents and the government entities in charge of ensuring that they enjoy safe and healthy living conditions.
City Councilmember Carlina Rivera (D-Manhattan), whose district includes Riis, says many residents there are fed up.
“You just went through this arsenic scare, you see the Sandy work and try to understand what storm hardening is, you know? And the mistrust already in NYCHA in terms of living conditions and the safety of the infrastructure that exists?” said Rivera. “When these things happen and you’re already struggling just to live in and maintain what people would say are barely livable conditions, it starts to get to you.”
Communications with Riis residents about this project have so far been fraught, with tenants disbelieving promises made by NYCHA, Con Ed and the state that the soil removal will be carried out under strict oversight and not endanger them.
“They say that it’s not that bad and it won’t affect us, but then they’re not always transparent about what they say and what they tell us because they don’t want us scared,” tenant association president Williams said.
During a volatile town hall in April held by DEC to discuss the upcoming soil removal, residents erupted into shouting as state officials tried to assure them that the plan was safe.
The heated dynamic was clearly exacerbated by the communication debacle that occurred in September over the issue of arsenic in the drinking water. During the meeting, several residents said they believed the arsenic scare was linked to the presence of toxins in the ground beneath their feet. Attorney Kupferman stood up to point out that testing he oversaw last fall did, in fact, reveal high levels of arsenic in the soil.
But DEC’s MacNeal, conceding that the groundwater beneath Riis is contaminated, explained that the water residents drink comes via New York City’s vaunted water system, which relies exclusively on water piped from upstate reservoirs.
“I understand there have been some concerns regarding the systems. Those systems have no contact with what’s in the ground. So that water that comes out of your tap comes from upstate,” MacNeal said. “Anything we can do here is not going to fix that.”
DEC reps assured the audience they would take residents’ concerns into consideration and urged those in attendance to submit comments to an online portal.
The public comment period ended May 22. Last month DEC officials told THE CITY the agency was reviewing the comments received and the plan would move forward once the Sandy work was finished. NYCHA said that’s expected to happen by June 30.
While the final plan has yet to be revealed, prior studies commissioned by Con Ed lay out some likely scenarios: fences will go up around the five buildings where soil is to be removed, and air monitoring will again take place when cleanup begins. Wells will be placed along the FDR Drive side of the development from East 13th Street down to East 11th Street to monitor for the toxins produced by coal tar.
For some who’ve been dealing with this issue for more than 10 years, the pace of remediation has been disappointing. Assemblymember Harvey Epstein (D-Manhattan), whose district includes Riis, says he can’t comprehend why the problem hasn’t been resolved by now.
“I’ve been talking to them about the problem with arsenic in the soil for years. And our folks are suffering. It’s a real concern. We need to respond in a thoughtful way. I don’t understand why they can’t do soil remediation now,” Epstein said. “I have to trust that the state DEC is doing things in a safe and thoughtful way. I encourage them to do that as quickly as possible.”