Locals blasted city reps for forging ahead with plans to build a homeless shelter for women and children on a site with a toxic history at Community Board 13’s environmental committee meeting on April 16, calling for a city or state environmental agency to investigate the site.
Councilman Mark Treyger (D–Coney Island) charged that the site couldn’t be fit to house homeless families, given the determination by city and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials that it was too unsafe for the Ida G. Israel health clinic to reopen there after it was flooded in Hurricane Sandy.
“My question is, if the [city] administration felt and was told by the federal government that this was not safe for a health clinic, what makes this safe now for families in shelter?” Treyger asked the reps.
The Department of Homeless Services’ deputy commissioner, Jackie Bray, and the Department of Social Services’ senior deputy general counsel, Aaron Goodman, met with about a dozen board members and locals earlier in the week to answer concerns raised about omissions in the environmental assessment of the Neptune Avenue site between W. 22nd and W. 23rd streets.
The city paid Aecom — a private engineering firm — to conduct the review. Local environmental activist Ida Sanoff first flagged the omissions — such as the site’s flooding during Hurricane Sandy, and prior lives as a dental clinic and a dye factory, among other worries — in a Nov. 27 letter to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services, Treyger, and other officials.
Reps for shelter operator Women in Need — run by former Council Speaker Christine Quinn — were not at the meeting, and it wasn’t directly involved in the environmental assessment of the property, according to a spokesman, who said construction would not begin until the area was deemed safe and the environmental assessment approved.
Bray and Goodman came armed with a nearly 100-page binder of additional information about the assessment which they said provided answers to the concerns Sanoff raised — including proof that levels of dangerous substances left over from the site’s past uses are either negligible or able to be mitigated. But Bray emphasized the agency’s focus was on the current state of the site, not its past.
“We want to be transparent, we want to answer your questions, but the question for us is really not about what happened on the site previously — it’s, is it safe to develop the site now, and have we done the appropriate testing to develop the site now?” she said.
But when one board member asked if the agency had commissioned an interior inspection of the now-empty structure to look for mold, Goodman said they hadn’t — and that he couldn’t guarantee there wasn’t mold contamination inside.
“Whether there’s mold in the building, there may be, but there were recommendations that were made by our contractor around air quality and particulate emissions … [this information] talks about some recommendations around how to mitigate against that,” he said.
Asked about why the city moved the clinic after Sandy, Bray said the reason was that the structure would have needed to be elevated, because it’s located in a flood zone, and that the city couldn’t do so at the time because it was leasing the building from a landlord.
But Treyger said that explanation contradicted what he was told by the city, which was that federal government said the toxins — stirred up by the flooding — made the site unsafe.
“If what you’re saying was accurate, then I was misled or lied to by the administration, because I was told that the Federal Emergency Management Agency told the city of New York that this was not a safe site,” he said.
Goodman and Bray promised they to follow up with the city Health and Hospitals system to learn more about the decision to move the health clinic.
Treyger demanded a written explanation detailing the decision, plus a determination on the history and safety of the site from “any actual environmental agencies credentialed in this type of work,” rather than a hired private firm. He also said that he wanted clarification over concerns about demolishing the bakery housed in the structure, and more details on how the planned community space would be developed.
“There’s a lot of follow-up that has to happen from this meeting, I have to tell you,” he said.