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Front Page April 16, 2009  RSS feed

DOE: Cleanup Is Needed At Maspeth School Site

Pollutants Found Where H.S. Will Be Built
by Robert Pozarycki

The ongoing wrangle over the construction of an 1,100-seat high school facility in Maspeth took another turn on Tuesday, Apr. 14 when a local civic group publicized official documents that indicated the presence of contaminants on the property where the campus will be built.

The Times Newsweekly was informed by the Juniper Park Civic Association of an environmental impact statement (EIS) published in February by the School Construction Authority (SCA) which noted the need to remediate contamination found in the soil of the site located at the northwest corner of 74th Street and 57th Avenue.

Currently the home of a vacant warehouse previously used by the Restaurant Depot supply company, the location will soon be occupied by a school building housing two 500- seat public high schools and a 100- seat special education facility. The plan was approved by the City Council on Apr. 2 over the objections of local residents and City Council Member Elizabeth Crowley.

Though the project was the subject of intense debate within the community over the last two months, environmental concerns regarding the school site were not raised prior to this past Tuesday.

During recent meetings of Community Board 5 and the JPCA, along with a public hearing held by the SCA in Maspeth on Feb. 26, the debate largely focused on other details including traffic and congestion, the close proximity of the site to two other public schools and whether or not the school would be locally zoned for area students.

According to an e-mail to this newspaper from Christina Wilkinson, JPCA secretary, the civic group "was unaware of the publication of the EIS until after the Council hearing and vote [on Apr. 2], otherwise we would have made an issue of it."

The JPCA and its ranking membership have repeatedly stated their opposition to the construction of the high school facility at the former Restaurant Depot site, charging that its presence would have an adverse effect on the area's quality of life.

Copies of the EIS were distributed to Community Board 5 in February and to the City Council when the high school project was introduced for their consideration, said a spokesperson for the city's Department of Education (DOE).

The report, along with other materials pertaining to the proposal, were also made available for public viewing at the SCA's office on Thomson Avenue in Long Island City prior to the SCA's February public hearing, the spokesperson added.

Following standard procedure, the spokesperson said, copies of the EIS were neither posted on the SCA's website nor were they disseminated to attendees at the public hearing.

Findings of the report

As for the contaminants found on the property, the DOE spokesperson stated that the findings listed in the EIS revealed conditions that "are common to urban construction sites" across New York City. Even so, the spokesperson indicated, appropriate remedial actions would be taken to ensure that the site is safe for the school to open and operate for years to come.

"The Department of Education observes rigorous and very conservative standards in determining whether a site is suitable for school construction," according to a statement released by the DOE. "We proposed the Maspeth high school site only after establishing that it will be completely safe for the building's students and staff."

In the EIS, the SCA stated that 10 soil samples as well as five samples of soil vapor were collected from the site and brought to a laboratory. Tests were conducted on each to determine the presence of contaminants including volatile organic compounds, heavy metals, pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

In five of the 10 soil samples, the report stated, semi-volatile organic compounds were detected in levels exceeding guidelines set by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. These compounds included benzoanthracene, chrysene, benzofluoranthene, benzopyrene, indenopyrene and dibenzoanthracene.

Many of these chemicals are known as byproducts of automotive exhaust and, with prolonged exposure, could cause various forms of cancer.

Six soil samples were found to have excessive levels of various metals including barium, chromium, lead and mercury.

The contamination of the soil, according to the EIS, was attributed to "the presence of historic urban fill material" existing to a depth of eight to 12 feet below the surface. Deeper soil samples were found to have concentrations below hazardous levels.

Tests of the soil vapor samples revealed elevated levels of volatile organic compounds, namely petroleum byproducts, which exceeded New York State Department of Health guidelines for indoor air.

Elevated levels of the chemical tetrachloroethene (PCE) were also detected in samples of indoor and outdoor air.

But given the low concentration of volatile organic compounds in the soil, the EIS determined that the soil vapor contamination was the result of an unknown source outside of the proposed school site.

In the process of constructing the school, the EIS indicated that a number of corrective actions would be taken to remove contaminants from the property.

Any polluted soil would be excavated and removed in accordance with safety procedures under local, state and federal law.

Additionally, the DOE statement indicated that the school "will be equipped with a precautionary barrier system to ensure that no contaminants can enter the school building."

Reaction

In light of the report's findings, the JPCA has retained the pro bono services of Dr. James Cervino, a visiting scientist with Pace University and non-staffed advisor to State Sen. Frank Padavan and City Council Member Tony Avella, to examine the EIS and advise the civic group on its meaning.

Cervino stated, in a message forwarded from him by the JPCA, that he found the study "highly ambiguous and lacking scientific credit in its present format."

He requested to see the hard data chemical results from the project, pointing to recent news reports regarding the discovery at other school sites of elevated levels of heavy metals deemed hazardous under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976.

Asked why environmental issues never came up during the debate, Board 5 District Manager Gary Giordano said in a phone interview that the advisory body was "so attentive to the issues at hand" regarding the school structure itself, the students it would serve and its impact on the surrounding community.

Board 5 recommended approval of the project at their March meeting with several strict conditions, including giving first preference to students living in the 11378, 11379 and 11385 ZIP codes, providing a special bus stop lane on 74th Street and split scheduling to avoid student run-ins with pupils from nearby P.S. 58 and I.S. 73. None of their recommendations were adopted in the final plan approved by the City Council.

"We would hope that a government agency of significant size and staff, such as the School Construction Authority and the Department of Education, would make good judgments with regard to a proposed school site and any environmental issues," Giordano told the Times Newsweekly. "In this instance, maybe we were too trusting."

Council Member Crowley said in a statement that "[t]oxins in soil on industrial sites is a given," adding that the SCA and DOE "are obliged by law to clean up any contamination on school construction sites before building a school."

Meredith Burak, Crowley's spokesperson, added that the legislator "will not allow a shovel in the ground until all cleanup efforts have been completed and the site has been given a clean bill of health."

The Council member concluded that she stands behind her Apr. 2 vote against the school project. Crowley had repeatedly stated that she would only support the project if the school was locally zoned for area children, which was a condition not included in the final plan.