When a conversation starts out with, “You’re not going to believe this!” it generally means something incredibly stupid is about to be revealed. This was the way I found out about the now infamous lead contaminated soil from the Penelope Avenue sewer project being dumped in a lot across the street from an elementary school.

Robert Holden related the story over the phone to me shortly after he met with the City’s Department of Design and Construction on April 13th when they dropped the bomb on him. The Middle Village sewer project had been shut down since November 2017, and Holden was originally told by the Department of Environmental Protection in February that it was because they had found “ash” while digging that was “contaminated but not hazardous”. But during this DDC meeting, he was told that work actually stopped because the contractor, CAC, unearthed soil that was highly contaminated with lead and petroleum. They found out it was dirty when the dump they had brought it to had turned it away and no other dump in New York State would take it. CAC’s solution to this predicament was to unload it in the equipment storage yard they were renting next to the bridge over the CSX tracks. This lot sits directly across 69th Street from both PS128 and the PS128 annex. On April 17th, the council member held a press conference where he planted a symbolic red flag to draw attention to the problem.

The dirt was left uncovered from November through April and high winds had blown it all around the neighborhood, making the contaminants airborne. Meanwhile, back on 74th Street, the contractor had sealed up and paved over the holes they had created and simply walked away. DDC waited until they were pressed by Holden to reveal the presence of the toxicity. They also suggested that the $22M project will now cost an additional $10M to complete due to the increased cost of handling the soil.

The fact that there are potential hazards underground should come as no surprise to the City of New York, as the City’s own Department of Sanitation used the site as a dump after removing the peat from Juniper Swamp back in the 1930s. There are all types of refuse underneath parts of Maspeth and Middle Village and back when it was buried, there wasn’t the same sense of environmental awareness that there is now. Testing should have happened before the commencement of the project so that a proper handling protocol could have been implemented. By the first weekend in May, the piles of soils had been removed to the relief of just about everyone.

While DDC claims that the 300-600ppm lead levels found in the soil samples they took from the dirt piles were within a “safe” range, the reality is that there is no such thing as a safe level of lead. Even low levels of lead can cause health problems if repeated exposure occurs. Lead is toxic to humans as it builds up in the body, which cannot eliminate it. At two underground hotspots in Middle Village, lead levels of 2400ppm were discovered by the state DEC. It is recommended that anyone growing vegetables in their yard near where the project is taking place get their soil tested. Parents of children attending PS128 may want to have their children tested as well.

This is the third major project underway in this area which has hit major snags due to lack of oversight by the City:

The Calamus Avenue sewer project, where CAC was overseeing HAKS (now involved in a bribery scandal) has dragged on for years and caused quite a bit of misery for area residents in the form of road closures and property damage. Hoses that were not authorized for drinking water were installed illegally and left in for 2 years.

The Metropolitan Avenue-Fresh Pond Road bridge project came screeching to a halt late last year after Mugrose Construction, a small firm with a history of biting off more than it could chew, walked away from the project, leaving area small businesses in the lurch and lengthening the time that travelers will have to deal with a traffic nightmare.

Keep in mind that the Winfield and Middle Village sections of the sewer project will be connected by a third segment that runs below streets in Maspeth in the near future. Have the City and its contractors learned from past mistakes? Let’s hope so.

The bottom line is that taxpayers and residents deserve better and the City needs to work on cleaning up its act while it cleans up this mess. We’ve had to put up with more than enough nonsense already.