Toxi City: Exploring Brooklyn's Industrial Legacy

Phelps Dodge Refining Corporation, Maspeth, Queens

Posted in Brooklyn,Brownfield,East Williamsburg,Maspeth,Newtown Creek,Queens by Robin on October 31, 2010

On Friday, Peter Spellane and I set off to see the Phelps Dodge state superfund site in Queens. According to the NYS DEC record for the site, It was used “from 1920-1983 for the production of tri-basic copper sulfate (pesticides), copper and sulfate pentahydrate and as a copper refinery.” And “The primary contaminants of concern at the site are heavy metals, including cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, and others, petroleum related hydrocarbons, and PCBs.”

We started from the Grand Street L stop, pausing for guava pastelitos from an excellent Dominican bakery.

Monk fish was being delivered to the fried fish place on Bushwick Avenue as we headed down Grand.

We passed the car salvage and Bayside Fuel Oil Depot before we went over the Metropolitan Avenue Bridge that goes over the English Kills and then the Grand Avenue Bridge that goes over the east branch of the Newton Creek.

We turned down 47th Street. There is na abandoned lot along the creek side of the street and at the end, there is this construction material yard.

The weather was threatening rain so we skipped taking advantage of this access point to the creek at the end of 58th Road.

We turned up 48th Street.

At 48th and Maspeth Avenue, you get a view of Maspeth Creek. Across the water is the southernmost part of the Phelps Dodge site. A kitchen and bath showroom is now on this portion of the site.

The visible garbage in the water really isn’t the dangerous part.

At 49th Street and 56th Road, we noticed railroad tracks that are well maintained and in working order. 49th Street here runs along the east border of the Phelps Dodge site. The railroad runs along 56th Road basically on the northern edge of the property.

The Phelps Dodge site is on the other side of this fence. Across the creek in the background you can see one of the two large gas storage tanks that belong to National Grid. The way the property breaks up moving from west to east is that there is a vacant area next to the Kosciuszko Bridge then a restaurant supply big-box style store with ample paved parking areas around it. Then there is another fenced off abandoned area that has several temporary structures on it that Peter thought might be part of the remediation effort. And then there is the Davis and Warshow kitchen and bath supply showroom which is on Maspeth Creek. Peter spoke with the “guard” who is a geologist.

Out behind the restaurant supply building I met this trucker who drives for Foodliner moving food-grade dry bulk, primarily flour. He had just brought a load of kosher flour to the restaurant supply. BTW, Foodliner is hiring.

Phelps Dodge and Nichols Chemical before them must have brought in materials by water.

At the water’s edge is a concrete area that runs along the Newtown Creek well around the bend of the Maspeth Creek that was served by small rail.

Left by a seagull after a meal.

Customers of the restaurant supply. The name of their establishment is Jekyll and Hyde.

As we were leaving, we noticed the old mailbox for Phelps Dodge. The land is now owned by Sagres Partners.

Right under the bridge, just adjacent to the property, we saw these two men working in and around open dirt. It is the contaminated soil on the other side of the fence that the DEC says is the greatest risk for human exposure to the toxins on the site.

And we finally did see the railroad in action. the load appeared to be plywood.


Bushwick Inlet

Posted in Brooklyn,Brownfield,Greenpoint,Williamsburg by Robin on September 9, 2010

Last week, I went to Williamsburg to talk to Brian Walsh about mgps and state superfund sites for a documentary that he is making. Last year, testing was ongoing at the Williamsburg Works site. Now, there doesn’t appear to be anything happening at the site. A few cars were parked there. Interestingly enough, Bayside Oil whose property was on the Voluntary Cleanup Program list last summer is no longer on the list. This whole area along the waterfront is slated to become a park despite its very intense contamination.

Two blocks away is the Wythe Avenue Station site, now a state superfund site. Coal gas was stored on this site. Now it has several warehouses and a palet company on the block. People go to work on this site everyday. I don’t know what the exposure issues are or how dangerous it is to be on this site day in and day out but I know that I would want to know if my workplace was a state superfund site.

Newtown Creek

Posted in Brooklyn,Brownfield,Greenpoint,Newtown Creek by Robin on March 7, 2010

On Saturday, February 27th, I took a walk starting on Monitor street and making a circle around Norman to Apollo to see what kind of accessibility there is to photograph the areas where Brooklyn’s oil industry has such a long history. Monitor street is spectacular ending in the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The snow makes visible the car and truck emissions that usually just settles on the roads in a way that we don’t notice it.

Turning the corner and then heading down Kingsland one heads past the ExxonMobil site. It is behind an plain wall. For some reason this section of Kingsland Avenue is called Grandparnents Avenue.

Beyond that there is some parking.

Turn the corner on Norman and there is more parking. All of this area was once used for petroleum refining.

Parking and garbage dumping. This lot had a huge pile of mattresses.

The literal garbage and the visible pollution combined with the knowledge that this land was used for chemical production, oil refining and that underneath is both a huge oil spill and several vapor plumes combine to leave me feeling low.

BP still has an active oil storage on Norman and Apollo.

One block up on Nassau, people live.

Coney Island

Posted in Brooklyn,Brownfield,Coney Island by Robin on January 7, 2010

Coney Island Dangman Park MGP site

I went to Coney Island yesterday. Unsure of Toxi City’s continued relevance, I am revisiting some of the sites. This site is now a small shopping center. Very unremarkable. It was the site of a manufactured gas plant according to NYS DEC for about 20 years prior to 1906. So 100 years ago this ground was full of coal tar. And capped it is probably fine. Maybe there are vapor issues. That is what testing will determine.

However, who can predict what people will do. The lights need to be fixed and the electrical cables between them need to be dug up. So now there are the conditions for direct exposure to the soil. At least it is January and this man is wearing gloves.

Coney Island Boardwalk

Coney Island Boardwalk

I took a short walk on the beach.

I also got over to Shell road. There wasn’t much access to the creek. But I did see this heron take flight.

Paedegat Basin area

Posted in Brooklyn,Brownfield,Paedegat Basin by Robin on September 6, 2009

Nina and I went out to check out two brownfield sites near Paedegat Basin today. The first is in a strip mall. Called Bon Ton Cleaners in the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, it is now actually called Rebecca Cleaners. Remediation is complete as of last September and it supposedly reduced the effects of soil vapor levels of TETRACHLOROETHYLENE (PCE).

Then we walked over to a site called Harbor Estates Property. It is a housing development built on the Ralph Avenue Truck Fill. The remediation measures included digging up two feet of soil and replacing with clean soil. The deed restrictions forbid digging deeper than 2 feet.

Across the street, Nina noticed this mobile synagogue on Avenue M. Several young woman came over to talk to us as we were photographing it. they wanted to know if we were Jewish, if we were lost souls that could be saved. It was sad to disappoint them.

Below is the 69th Street side:


On Bergen Avenue, we followed a dirt biker into the area along Paedegat Basin itself.

At the top of the basin is the Bureau of Sewers.


Posted in Brooklyn,Brownfield,Gowanus Canal by Robin on August 16, 2009

Nina and I walked up to the Double D pool this am. The Fulton Works Manufactured Gas Plant was on this site. It then became a park in the 1930s.
I know that there is a significant amount of contamination under the cement and the plastic of the pool liner. I don’t know if that means it is dangerous to use the park. How does one manufactured gas plant site become a public park without any remediation whatsoever while another like Public Place can have such a different fate? And yet that site hasn’t been remediated either. It is fenced off, without progess year after year.
The area underneath the handball courts is also toxic.
After checking out the pool, we walked one block over to the canal.
In the water, we saw a crab moving along this tire. There also appeared to be an air conditioner and an old bird cage in the water next to the tire.

Turning to go back up Degraw Street, it already felt really hot.

On the Union Street Bridge, I think I saw a Black-Capped Heron. Quiet a morning for nature watching.

Sunset Park

Posted in Brooklyn,Brownfield,Sunset Park by Robin on August 7, 2009
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I went to Sunset Park this am to photograph the Empire Electric site at 5100 1st Avenue.

This building, now abandoned, originally housed an electrical power system for the city’s trolleys.

Then in the 1950s it was purchased by Empire Electric and used for reconditioning electrical apparatus.

The building itself including the floors, walls, and ground beneath the building is all thought to be contaminated with PCBs.

Peter explained to me that PCBs were chosen to insulate around electricity because they are so stable. This is also what make them so difficult to get rid of. They do not easily degrade so they hang around in the environment.

Right next to this site between 52nd and 54th is an oil installation over what was Kings County Works Manufactured Gas Plant.

Bush Terminal, Sunset Park

Posted in Brooklyn,Brownfield,Sunset Park by Robin on August 3, 2009

Nina and I photographed at the Bush Terminal in Sunset Park on Saturday. Manufactured goods used to move around the yards by rail to the piers and then out across the world.

Now things are pretty quiet. Quiet enough for raccoons.

As you come out to the waterfront, there is a monument to four firefighters that died on 9/11. In front of this statue is Upper New York Bay.

The old piers, rotting and contaminated, are now fenced off. In the 70s, hazardous waste was dumped there and now these old piers are in the State Superfund Program. This area is also in the Environmental Restoration Program and so appears twice on the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation Environmental Site Remediation Database.

Boats docked here in what must be relatively deep water.


A rail went all the way out to the end of the piers inside the now brownfield area. Another rail still operates on the 51st street side.

This area is now going to be developed as a park. At least so it was announced on July 22nd in the Sunset Park Waterfront Vision Plan as mentioned in There were bulldozers there and it looked like work had started. Theoretically, there is $37 million is slated to build the Bush Terminal Piers Park, which will add 22 acres of open space for recreation. however, what happened to earlier money dedicated to remediating this brownfield? Whatever part of this plan that can improve the old rail system and reduce truck traffic is good. It is unclear to me what kind of remediation is planned. Digging up the soil a few feet and trucking it to Pennsylvania?



Last Wednesday, July 22, I met Nina at the Nassau Avenue G train station. We started off down Nassau and were lured by the bright shine of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant to turn down Monitor Street. Looking an amazing aerial photo from 1954 of the area I found on the Newtown Creek Alliance website, Monitor Street would have run right through Mobil’s Oil Refinery. So why isn’t this defined as brownfield?


We walked down Greenpoint Avenue and saw the Water Pollution Control Plant construction and some of the recycling activity. Paper. Metal. Then we walked back and over the JJ Byrne Bridge. The images can’t convey how deafening the truck traffic is.


Petroleum still has a visible presence.

As does just the old waterfront.

Then we walked back down Kingsland past the ExxonMobil “Greenpoint Remediation Project.” This I guess is the center of the huge spill in Greenpoint. From the bridge, the site looks completely innocuous.

315 Kingsland Avenue is the address of the former Spic and Span Cleaners and Dryers which is in the State Superfund program. TETRACHLOROETHYLENE (PCE). The site is part of the Meeker Avenue plume.


East New York

Posted in Brooklyn,Brownfield,East New York by Robin on July 21, 2009

On Sunday, I went to 5 brownfield sites in East New York. I asked Maurice Freeman, a former City Tech student and East New York resident to come with me. We started at the Belmont Holder site, 290 Belmont which is still an active Con Ed site. This site is not on the state remediation list which makes it just like the Plymouth Street Holder site in Dumbo. The building is well maintained and relatively new and on this beautiful Sunday, it was sealed up as tight as a drum. For some unknown reason, there is a school crossing sign painted in the street.

I don’t know why coal gas would have been stored here.

There were no nearby manufactured gas plants of which I am aware. There is a railroad a few blocks away however. Maybe that made it easy to transport the gas. It is possible that the the gas was used by industries in the area. We walked over toward the railroad. We saw mounds of metal and unsorted recycling on the other side. Must be Gershow Recycling at 1885 Pitkin. Just like the metal recycling places along the Gowanus, the metal is piled high these days. A sign of the recession.

Next, we took the 20 bus to Loring Avenue and Eldert Lane. When we got off, we were both surprised by how nice the new developments there were. The Spring Creek site at Emerald is a remediated site with housing that was theoretically built in 1990. The paint looked very fresh and the townhouses were in really good shape. From the info on the NYSDEC web site, the area had been used as a dump. It was cleaned up before the housing was built. On this particular block, drums of more noxious stuff were observed so this block made it onto the state’s superfund list. This seems so arbitrary. Kids were playing on a paved parking lot between the houses. I thought maybe that’s best. Some of these kids did ask us what we were doing. I really didn’t know what to say. Who wants to hear,”I am photographing your home because it was built on a toxic dump.” Maurice had a great answer: the catch-all “school project.”

The next site was the former Majestic Garment Cleaners at 740 Pine, now an empty lot with plywood around the perimeter.

The google map shows a building at this site so it was probably razed fairly recently, meaning in the last few years. The site is contaminated with TETRACHLOROETHYLENE (PCE) from the dry cleaning business. This sounds fairly nasty and hard to clean up. On the outside, there is a sign that says Danrich Family Homes.


Then we walked down Fountain.


We turned on Flatlands. The side towards Jamaica Bay seems to be undeveloped land, the other side various kinds of industrial yards. Further up, there is a sports facility in which there was an ongoing soccer game. We walked towards the site which is called S & S X-Ray Products but is actually a Stop & Stor. There was a rabbit on the lawn.

I asked him to move so I could photograph him with the logo.

This was another example of how because the brownfield sites are often not well populated, nature moves right in. We had just walked by two long blocks of unused land, here was a rabbit.

Around the corner, it was back to warehouses. A woman in a short yellow dress was unceremoniously let out of a car. Unlike rabbit, this was the of kind of thing, I suppose I expect on deserted streets.

This site was used by Art-Lloyd Metal Products and was polluted during the manufacture of various metal goods. It has been remediated but you still can’t dig in the ground here or use the groudwater. Self-storage seems like a pretty decent solution for the site.

Back on the 20 Bus to the last site on Atlantic Avenue, the Union Station Holder, between Ashford Street and Liberty. rm_20090719_7403

This site has been used as a parking lot by Con Ed since 1965 according to NYSDEC. There is a lovely old building on the corner of Cleveland that at least corresponds to where a building stood in the 1921 map.
The shape of the back of the building was slightly different though. On Cleveland on the sidewalk, we saw this pile of crab shells. A block or two away is a store live crabs are sold. I imagined someone eating the crabs on this block in their car.

Anyway the holders were on this side of the block where the parking lot is now on the other side of this wall. No real testing has been done yet of this site. Across the street is a schoolyard.

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