Over the past seven years, the federal, state, and city governments have coordinated to address some of the most toxic sites in New York City, initiating cleanups in communities where pollution has affected generations of residents. Contaminated waterways are finally being dredged, polluted landfills remediated, radioactive waste sites capped, and neglected brownfields cleared.
But with the recent inauguration of Donald Trump, a man who has vowed to abolish or severely cripple the Environmental Protection Agency, many New York residents are worried that these ongoing efforts could be derailed. Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to lead the EPA, is also known as an antagonist of the agency—his LinkedIn profile does, after all, tout his work as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.”
Ironically, several of the most toxic properties in New York City are currently under the control of Trump family members who stand to benefit from their remediation and development. In Brooklyn, two enormous brownfields in Dumbo and Gowanus were purchased by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a senior advisor at the White House, and are now in the beginning phases of their New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) cleanups.
In the Bronx, the Trump Organization is raking in millions of dollars from a special rent-free arrangement to operate Trump Ferry Point, a city golf course built on top of a noxious garbage dump. As the current president continues in his quest to weaken environmental regulations, it is unclear what the future will be for these polluted sites, and for the many other brownfields, Superfund sites, and contaminated wastelands in New York City.
In December 2016, shortly before moving to Washington D.C. to work for his father-in-law’s administration, Jared Kushner’s real estate group Kushner Companies partnered with CIM Group and LIVWRK to purchase a 135,000-square-foot brownfield in Dumbo, Brooklyn.
The property, a one-block parking lot known as 85 Jay Street, sold for $345 million, and includes the rights to build a 20-story residential complex. The deal has greatly expanded the Kushner empire in Dumbo (which includes the larger Dumbo Heights campus) and “cements the neighborhood’s status as the new Trump Village,” according to the Brooklyn Paper.
Rumors have long flown in the community about why this property remained undeveloped for so long, with some speculating that its “contaminated soil” was too toxic for residences. These rumors, it turns out, may be rooted in fact.
The long industrial history of the block that encompasses 85 Jay Street dates back to the 1800s, and its former tenants include the Empire Electric Company powerhouses and the Leavy & Britton Brewery. But the most toxic property that once occupied this site may well be the Bradley Works of the National Lead Company, which produced and stored tons of poisonous white lead here during the decades when Brooklyn was the largest lead manufacturer in the world.
The parking lot at 85 Jay Street is currently unused, devoid of both buildings and cars. Instead, a geotechnical drilling company was working on site last week, boring holes down into the gravel-strewn soil. The DEC is now in the first phases of determining whether this site is eligible to join the state’s Brownfield Cleanup Program, for which it is expected to qualify.
“The site investigation is proceeding, which will be followed by a proposed remedial plan that will be provided for public comment,” according to a statement from Rodney J. Rivera, a DEC spokesperson.
Meanwhile, Kushner Companies is also developing a 140,000-square-foot site on the banks of the Gowanus Canal, which it purchased in 2014 in partnership with LIVWRK and SL Green for $72.5 million. This block-long property, situated between the neighborhood’s Whole Foods Market and a derelict powerhouse known as The Batcave, encompasses several addresses, from 175 to 225 Third Street.
It has already been designated a DEC brownfield, and borders an EPA Superfund site (the canal), making it among the most toxic development properties in New York City. Currently home to a Verizon parking lot, its industrial uses also date back to the 1800s, and include a blacksmith, coal yard, automobile wrecking facility, and gasoline filling station. The DEC is currently conducting an investigation of the pollution here, and has installed 14 monitoring wells, six soil vapor probes, and two test pits to collect samples.
“Based on past use and previous investigations, petroleum-related VOCs [volatile organic compounds] (specifically gasoline and waste oil) are expected to be found at elevated concentrations in soil and groundwater,” according to a DEC statement from Rivera. “Lead impacted soil was found in the underground drainage area…. Chlorinated solvents have also been documented in soil vapor on-site.” The results of the DEC’s latest investigation are expected to be submitted in a report next month, which will help guide the property’s owners to create an appropriate cleanup plan.
The Gowanus Canal is one of three sites in the city that have been declared Superfunds by the Environmental Protection Agency since 2010. The remediation of its waters, along with the Newtown Creek Superfund and the radioactive Wolff-Alport Chemical Company site in Ridgewood, Queens, will take many years to complete.
Despite this, developers continue to invest in land throughout these polluted areas, and in Gowanus, they’re dreaming of a cleaned-up “Venice” of residential towers and waterfront esplanades, somehow replacing the raw sewage that now flows past multiple brownfields. But despite assurances from local EPA officials, some experts have said that the Superfund process here could be substantially delayed by the Trump administration.
Perhaps the most toxic property in the Trump family’s dossier is Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point, a city-owned public golf course that opened in 2015 atop a remediated garbage dump in the Bronx.
Described by The New York Times as “one of the more egregious symbols of class division in a city already so famously replete with them,” the cleanup and construction of the course were financed by taxpayers at a cost of over $230 million, making this “one of the most expensive golf courses ever built” and “the most expensive municipal golf course in the nation.” Yet the Trump Organization currently operates here rent-free (and will continue to do so for two more years), as part of a sweetheart deal negotiated by former billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The golf course has so far brought in millions of dollars in revenue by charging the highest fees of any public course in the city. Situated in a city park but surrounded by iron fences, a screen of trees and numerous “no trespassing” signs, the notion that this course is “public” is debatable. What is unquestionable is that the toxic methane fumes from the rotting garbage underneath it are a serious threat to the surrounding community, which includes a number of public housing complexes.
But building on a toxic dumping ground didn’t come without problems, including contaminated soil; vents to release poisonous methane gas have been constructed throughout the park’s property.
“At the spots near the edges of the fill where the migrating methane finds an opening to vent upward, the gas can become concentrated, potentially to levels where it will explode if exposed to a spark,” according to a 2003 report in the NY Times. “In early 2001, the State Department of Environmental Conservation told the developers to dig a gas-venting trench around the site to prevent this problem.” However, methane releases have continued to be a problem in the area, as the dump continues to rot and settle.
As the efforts to clean up the city’s various contaminated sites have proven, the EPA plays a crucial role in pushing these remediation efforts forward, be it through grants, community outreach, or technical assistance. Hopefully, the EPA can survive the current administration without slowing the vital cleanups that are already underway in communities throughout New York City.
In December 2016, Kushner Companies, LIVWRK, and CIM Group purchased 85 Jay Street in Dumbo with the plan to build a “game-changing mixed-used project comprised of residential, retail and community facility space in addition to below-grade parking.”
The property has been fenced off from the neighborhood for many years, leading to speculation about why it was not developed by its previous owners, the Jehovah's Witnesses.
The site is currently in the DEC’s “eligibility determination phase,” to see if it will become part of the state’s Brownfield Cleanup Program. With its past history, it is expected to be accepted.
Today, the parking lot has been cleared of cars, and the only activity visible on site was a drilling company digging down into the polluted soil.
Meanwhile, in Gowanus, Kushner Companies, LIVWRK, and SL Green purchased 175-225 Third Street, with plans to build a “game-changing mixed-use project” on the site.
The site is currently a parking lot and storage yard for Verizon, and is bordered by a storage facility and an empty powerhouse dating back to at least the 1890s.
The parking lot, like the entire neighborhood, will soon undergo an extensive cleanup that could take years. The powerhouse next door is also an official DEC brownfield, while the nearby Gowanus Canal is an EPA Superfund Site, both of which are in the process of being remediated.
Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point in the Bronx opened in 2015 on NYC Parks Department property. It is currently operated by the Trump Organization.
The golf course sits above a toxic landfill that was created when Robert Moses decided to extend Ferry Point Park, “filling the marsh with garbage, which has been rotting and exuding methane gas,” according to the New York Times.
Methane vents and wells dot the park’s landscape, helping release potentially explosive gas buildups.
The golf course, although ostensibly open to the public, is fenced off and screened from view by evergreen trees, and lined with warning signs along its perimeter, keeping local residents at bay.
In order to access the coast of Ferry Point Park along the East River, local residents must travel down a dead-end street and through a hole in a chain link fence, before crossing over a debris-strewn landscape.
Though it appears to be a pleasant public beach, the coast of the park bordering the golf course is largely inaccessible except at low tide. Tires and car parts are strewn across its sands.
A constant flow of water drains out from the golf course and landfill, into an beachfront that could have been remediated and opened to the public, instead of being given over to golfers and invasive phragmites.
Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City's abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012. "Industrial Twilight," an exhibit of Kensinger’s photographs of Brooklyn’s changing waterfront, is currently being exhibited at the Atlantic Avenue subway station in Brooklyn.