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Ridgewood's Radioactive Superfund Site Worries Neighbors

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, Kensinger explores New York City's newest Superfund site, located in Ridgewood, Queens.

[New York City's newest Superfund site is located on a quiet one-block section of Irving Avenue in Ridgewood, Queens. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.]

On May 8, the Environmental Protection Agency officially designated New York City's newest Superfund site, located on an nondescript industrial block of Irving Avenue in Ridgewood, Queens. Formerly the home of the Wolff-Alport Chemical Company, the site has been quietly irradiating the neighborhood for decades, leading The New Yorker to call it "The Most Radioactive Place in New York City." The EPA is now beginning the initial steps in what will likely be a lengthy cleanup process. "Just from looking at it, you would never know this is a Superfund site," said Thomas Mongelli, the Remedial Project Manager of the site, but the pollution is still there, in the form of gamma radiation emanating from thorium sludge discarded over 60 years ago. "It's in the soil, underground, in the sewers," said Mongelli. "They just dumped it down the sewers, because that's what you did with waste at that time."

The cleanup of Wolff-Alport may take up to a decade, resulting in a much improved environment for the neighborhood, but business owners and nearby residents are currently expressing trepidation about the Superfund designation. "It scares the shit out of me," said James McCormick, who lives in a recently converted warehouse a few hundred feet from the site. "But I don't know what to do about it… Is it bad? Should I be living here?" McCormick moved to the area a year and half ago, and estimates that 50 to 60 people now live in his building on Moffat Street, which is located on one of the sewer lines that thorium was dumped into. However, the EPA believes that people outside of the official Superfund area are not in any immediate danger. "Radiation is a scary concept. You can't see it, you can't smell it," said Thomas Mongelli. "You hear 'radiation' and you get scared, but there's no real impact to the outside community. It sounds a lot more worrying than it is."

For businesses located within the Superfund site, which include a bodega, an ice company, and a car repair shop, the cleanup process has already had a negative impact. "From the day they came over here, we are losing business," said Hilda Rodriguez, whose husband owns the Primo Auto Body shop on Irving Avenue. "I had a lot of people before, but now they are not coming." Fear of radiation has kept many customers away, despite an immense protective shield that the EPA laid down in the repair shop's driveway and garage. Its layers of steel and lead have not been able to assuage Hilda's own fears. "I don't want to stay here. I want to leave," she said, fighting back tears. "Sometimes I cry. I have a lot of depression."

At least one business in the neighborhood is already planning to relocate. "We're just going to shut this plant down. I don't have a date yet," said Nelson Rivera, the Distribution Manager for Arctic Glacier, an ice producing company which owns several properties in and near the Wolff-Alport Superfund site. The company's main ice plant in Brooklyn is located across the street from the Superfund, and a constant stream of trucks drives along Irving Avenue to pick up fresh made ice. "We push around 200 tons of ice from here," said Rivera, but the changing neighborhood and the radioactivity are two factors that led to the decision to shut down. "To us, it's more a fear of what is actually happening. What they are not telling you. We're standing on a layer of lead."

As the cleanup progresses over the coming years, and Ridgewood and Bushwick continue to grow in popularity as residential destinations, this area will no doubt undergo a larger transformation. A new residential building is already going up less than a block away from the Wolff-Alport site, while an empty lot across the street has been slated for residential development. "Everything is on the table at this point," said Mongelli, contemplating the cleanup process. "I can't even say roughly how long it will take."

The railroad spur that delivered monazite sands from the Belgian Congo to Wolff-Alport is now unused and is part of the Superfund site. "This is where they would unload the raw material," said Mongelli.

The paved-over tracks of the spur continue across Cooper Avenue and into residential Ridgewood. An active freight line still runs through in the neighborhood, on aboveground tracks.

Before the area along Irving Avenue was designated as a Superfund site, a shield of lead and steel was laid over the main area of gamma radiation by the EPA. "The shielding worked pretty well," said Mongelli. "It's mainly the onsite workers we are concerned about."

Across the street on Irving Avenue, plans have been made to turn this empty lot into new Bushwick residences, according to Mongelli. The borderline between Brooklyn and Queens runs down the middle of the street.

Arctic Glacier has several properties located at Irving Avenue and Moffat Street, including a warehouse in the Superfund site that is used to store ice freezers.

These freezers were visible from the sidewalk. "We've got a pretty large footprint here," said Nelson Rivera, pointing out that Arctic Glacier is "the largest ice company in the world."

Losquadro Ice was the previous ice company in the neighborhood, which has had a long history as an industrial area. Wolff-Alport was in operation here from the 1920s to 1954, extracting rare earth elements.

Wolff-Alport's radioactive thorium sludge was flushed into a sewer system that runs under Moffat Street and into Bushwick. "We definitely have some elevated levels 300 feet down Moffat Street," said Mongelli.

The Arctic Glacier ice house faces Moffat, across from a warehouse now used as loft apartments. "It's being gentrified," said Nelson Rivera. "Just a year ago, this neighborhood was much rougher."

New tenants moving in to the warehouse at 338 Moffat Street, just down the street (and sewer line) from the Superfund site. "This is the best place I've ever lived in," said resident James McCormick. "The worst is there's no bars, no really good delis. There is no place to grab a cup of coffee."

The quiet streets along the Bushwick/Ridgewood borderline may soon change, as the Superfund process continues and as new residents continue to move in. "We'll be doing some more sampling in the next few months," said Mongelli. "There's not much going on at the site right now."
· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· Ridgewood, NYC's Most Radioactive Place, Now Superfund Site [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]