Brooklyn Park Poses a Health Risk as Bankrupt Chemtura Fights PCB Cleanup

The grassy fields of a park in the gentrifying Red Hook section of Brooklyn are contaminated with PCBs at a level 110 times what New York environmental agencies consider safe, according to court records filed in a lawsuit against bankrupt Chemtura Corp.

Linked to liver cancer, low birth-weight and loss of motor skills, PCBs pose a threat to park visitors and nearby residents, said Judith Schreiber, chief scientist in the state attorney general’s environmental bureau. State and city health and environmental agencies declined to comment or said they aren’t aware of the risks at the 58-acre park, a popular spot for soccer games and family picnics. Chemtura has resisted demands by the state environmental bureau that it clean up contamination from a leak at its plant, which abuts the park.

“Contamination at the site and in or near the recreation area is at unacceptable levels from a human exposure perspective,” Schreiber wrote in an April 22 affidavit in Manhattan federal court. Seven states including New York have sought to force the Middlebury, Connecticut-based company, the largest maker of plastic additives, to clean up nine polluted sites, including the Red Hook facility.

Chemtura filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March 2009 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York, citing potential defaults on its debt and environmental liabilities. It said it had set aside $107 million to cover cleanup costs over the next 10 years.

Disputed $2 Billion

The company has disputed at least $2 billion in claims from the U.S. and state governments for environmental liabilities, including its role in polluting the Gowanus Canal, a tidal arm of New York Harbor that was labeled a Superfund site this year. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates it will take $1 billion to clean the canal, which runs near the park. Chemtura’s Red Hook plant, which closed in 1999, operated since 1958. The land on which the park sits was assigned to the New York Parks Department in 1934.

Schreiber didn’t return calls seeking comment. Chemtura spokesman John Gustavsen declined to comment.

Situated on Upper New York Bay, Red Hook had traditionally been the focus of industry and shipping until the 1990s. Home to one of the city’s largest housing projects, it was named one of the worst neighborhoods in the U.S. by Life magazine in 1988, due in part to the spreading use of crack cocaine.

Red Hook Gentrification

Gentrification of the area over the past 15 years has coincided with the opening of large retail outlets, including an Ikea furniture store and a Fairway supermarket, a passenger cruise-ship terminal, cafes and wine stores. With the neighborhood’s resurgence, use of the contaminated park has increased. Red Hook Park hosts soccer tournaments and food vendors that draw large crowds on weekends.

At least eight other chemicals in the park are a cumulative health risk, including benzene, a carcinogen that causes leukemia, and phenol, which can cause liver damage, Schreiber said in court papers. They also flow in groundwater under nearby homes, causing potential “vapor intrusion,” and are of particular risk to children, pregnant women and the elderly.

PCBs, short for polychlorinated biphenyls, have been banned since 1979. The chemical doesn’t break down easily, building up in human and animal tissue, as well as in food chains.

A. Paul Patel, an environmental engineer for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, said in court papers that PCBs leaking from the defunct factory pose a threat to drinking water, as groundwater from the site flows into an aquifer that feeds Brooklyn’s neighboring borough of Queens and Nassau County to the east.

‘Continuing Threat’

“There is a clear and continuing threat to human health, public safety and the environment,” Patel said in court documents filed April 21. New York City Parks Department spokesman Phil Abramson declined to comment.

In his March 30 affidavit filed in federal court, Patel said that the Red Hook Recreation Area had 11,000 parts-per- billion of PCB contamination at surface level, and 97,000 ppb at a depth of 7 to 8 feet. State regulations allow contamination up to 100 ppb on such a site, according to Schreiber’s April 9 affidavit. Groundwater samples “in or near the Recreation Area” were contaminated at a level of 3,250 ppb, compared with a state maximum of 0.09 ppb for groundwater.

Regulators have fought for a decade with Chemtura and the plant’s former owner, Crompton Corp., which merged with another firm in 2005 to form the now-bankrupt company. Patel said the state has known of violations of hazardous waste laws at the site since the 1990s, when cracked and deteriorating tanks, some as large as 20,000 gallons, were reported, court papers show.

Disregarded Request

Crompton knew about PCBs since at least 1998, and disregarded a 2001 state request for full internal reports on the issue, Patel alleged in court filings. Last August, after Chemtura’s bankruptcy filing, the company provided the reports, according to court records. On March 5, state environmental regulators received a final report.

Patel couldn’t be immediately reached for comment. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation spokeswoman Maureen Wren declined to comment. New York City Health Department spokeswoman Celina Deleon and Jeffrey Hammond, a spokesman for the state health department, said their agencies aren’t aware of any health risk at the park, which has no signs warning of toxins in the soil or water.

Brooklyn Community Board 6, which represents the Red Hook neighborhood, isn’t aware of any risk, said district manager Craig Hammerman. The area has a long history of industrial use, so chemicals in soil are a familiar problem, he said.

‘New Exposure’

“As long as there’s no new exposure pathway being created, such as by digging or drinking groundwater, then it poses little to no risk to the community,” Hammerman said. The board relies on city and state agencies for information.

Marco Granados, a 54-year-old Brooklyn resident, was sitting about 15 yards from Chemtura’s former chemical plant on May 2 with a group of friends -- their children playing in the grass. Granados said he has visited the park every summer weekend for years, and never heard of any problem from chemicals.

“I remember, six or seven years ago, a smell -- but nothing now,” Granados said.

The case is In re Chemtura Corp., 09-11233, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

To contact the reporter on this story: Tiffany Kary in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York at tkary@bloomberg.net.

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