Extent of the spill yet to be determined, state says
Results from soil testing by the state have revealed worrying levels of toxins on a Longwood site the local health care agency Urban Health Plan had planned to convert into parking space for its growing operation.
Three years ago the organization signed a contract to buy the empty lot at 1095 Southern Blvd., with hopes of building a parking garage on it. The lot is a few blocks away from two of the group’s existing clinics and a third clinic under construction. Now, though, the weed-covered lot where a fire gutted a dry cleaner and several adjacent stores in 2008 is cut off from the street by a 100-foot-long chain link fence.
Urban Health Plan officials were startled to learn earlier this year that there are enough contaminants in the ground underneath it for the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation to consider the site a “significant threat” to public health. They say perchlorethylene, or perc, a solvent used in dry-cleaning, has been found in the soil and in groundwater as deep as 12 feet underground. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has linked the chemical to neurological, liver and kidney damage, as well as cancer and reproductive problems.
“It is difficult to determine whether solvents were improperly disposed of on a regular basis, as a one-time event, or by accident,” a special assistant for the DEC, Rodney Rivera, wrote in an email to The Express.
Community Board 2′s district manager Rafael Salamanca plans to meet with DEC representatives to discuss steps to deal with the hazard, and to learn how to prevent future spills.
Officials at Urban Health Plan say they have already shouldered over $100,000 in fees since they became aware of the problem. Spokeswoman Ivy Fairchild said UHP remains eager to close on the purchase of the site but will not be able to afford it if clean-up costs continued to mount.
“We’re not doing this so people know we’re the good guys–we’re doing this because we’re part of the community. We don’t want that contamination there,” said Fairchild.
The health plan’s chief executive Paloma Hernandez told Community Board 2 clean-up costs could amount to over $5 million if the contamination is found to have seeped down to bedrock, which the state says is 12 to 24 feet beneath the surface.
If Urban Health Plan decides not to buy the property, the quarter-acre lot will be designated a brownfield site and will be left for the state to clean up. Some community board members fear that could take years.
So far, the public faces no immediate risk, according to the state Department of Health, and preliminary inspections “of nearby residential and commercial buildings indicate that vapor intrusion is not occurring,” said DOH spokesperson Jeffrey W. Hammond.
DEC officials say the biggest threat is that the contamination could spread through the groundwater or, as vapor, through the air. That uncertainty prompted the state to initiate a wider inspection of the surrounding area.
“Where it does make a difference is if you put a building on the site. It creates vapors that congregate in the building, and then you would have a problem,” said Fairchild.
The site’s owner, David Yerosh, has cooperated with UHP to allow the investigation to proceed, according to Fairchild. An attorney working for Yerosh, James Periconi, said his client would help pay for the next round of testing.
According to Periconi, the dry-cleaning facility that was destroyed in the 2008 fire was a “drop off and pick up,” and the contamination could have resulted from previous dry-cleaning facilities on the site.
An environmental consultant for UHP, Chrisine Leas, said inspections are yet to determine if the spill originated in the dry cleaner that burned down in the 2008 blaze.
In 1997 the state tightened regulations for dry cleaning facilities that use perchlorethylene, phasing out older machines and requiring yearly inspections. While the state is taking measures to cut back on the use of the chemical, some Longwood area dry cleaners have voluntarily stopped using it.
“Perc is too strong,” said an employee of Bethel Cleaners on Westchester Avenue which does its cleaning at the store. Alternative chemicals are available, but nearly 2,000 dry cleaners in the state continue to use perchloroethylene.
Passers-by on Southern Boulevard seemed unconcerned about the site, nestled among other weed-covered lots on the street.
“The Bronx always looks like this,” said Richard Smith, 40, who had just picked up his daughter from a daycare center next to the lot. “I’m not worried about kids going into that area. If that fence wasn’t there, then I would have a problem.”