Manhattan Project’s Legacy on Staten Island
Last week, I reported on the “toxic stew” surrounding Staten Island’s North Shore. (For that article, go here.) That story was scary enough, but information obtained over the past week reveals that the scenario is actually much worse than initially reported. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency document reveal that a former warehouse on the North Shore played a significant part in the Manhattan Project — a role that went terribly awry, leaving levels of radium and uranium contamination nearly 10 times higher than allowable standards in some places.
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The 4 to 4.5 acre site sits on shore of the Dolan Transportation Services, is a deteriorating paved parking lot and storage area for trucks and other large vehicles. The site is surrounded by an eight-foot high chain link fence on the three sides that do not border the Kill Van Kull. Yet, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, “ardent” trespassers, boaters on the shipping channel and site workers could potentially access the site. Today, the only warning signs around it are “No trespassing” signs posted on the fence. “I call [the site] ‘You too can glow in the dark,’” said Dee Vanderberg of the Staten Island Taxpayers Association.
Staten Island’s Manhattan Project
From 1939 to 1942, Archer Daniels Midlands Co. agreed to use a portion of their linseed oil manufacturing property on Staten Island to store 1,200 tons of high-grade uranium ore mined in what was then the Belgian Congo. The uranium, purchased from African Metals Corp., was to be used in building the atomic bomb. However, at some point (either during initial delivery or eventual shipment), uranium spilled on the waterfront property.
In 1980, the U.S. Department of Energy conducted a limited, surface-level survey of the area and identified a 20-by-40 meter area that was radiologically contaminated. However, in 1986 they determined the site was ineligible for their Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program. Because the energy department never owned the uranium, the agency determined that is has no authority for the contamination.
Assessing the Dangers
Twelve years later, in 1992, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation conducted another assessment, this time of subsurface soil. It found the soil below the surface was far more radioactive than the surface samples studied by the energy department. Yet for reasons as yet unknown, no action was taken.
In February 2008 at the request of local citizens, the state asked the Environmental Protection Agency to re-evaluate contamination at the Richmond Terrace site. On Feb. 20, 2008, the federal and state environmental agencies and the New York City health department conducted a joint assessment of the site, which revealed levels of contamination approximately two orders of magnitude greater than the levels initially reported in 1980.
Because the site is also located within a 100-year flood plain, the Environmental Protection Agency believes that, in the event of a flood, there would be “a high tendency” for the material to migrate into the adjacent Kill Van Kull and Newark Bay. Moreover, the agency’s report states that although the area is currently fenced, trespassers coming either by land or water and site workers could “receive an unacceptable cancer risk under a conservative hypothetical risk assessment scenario.”
The analysis is frightening enough, but the severe weather and increased flooding brought on by climate change makes it that much more terrifying.
Early this year, the Environmental Protection Agency sent a letter to the energy department requesting that it reconsider the property for inclusion under its remedial action program. It also recommended that the energy department do another search for a responsible party – at this point, that would be either African Metals Corp. or Archer Daniels Midland. Finally, the agency stated that if the first two recommendations did not come to fruition, it would consider taking at least a limited action to further protect public health concerns at the site.
As of today — June 4, 2009 — North Shore residents are still waiting for answers.
by Melissa Checker