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Cleanup of mercury, gas tank at Seaport lot draws concerns from neighborhood

“Who wants their children to run around next to where they’re pulling mercury out of the ground?”

The Peck Slip School sits across from the 250 Water Street lot slated for an environmental cleanup.
Caroline Spivack/Curbed NY

Parents at the Peck Slip elementary school are considering pulling their children from the sought after public school in anticipation of a developer’s plans to cleanup chemicals that have leaked into a nearby block-sized lot—fearing their children will be exposed to hazardous materials kicked up during construction.

The sprawling 250 Water Street parcel currently functions as a parking lot but was bought by the Howard Hughes Corporation last June. In January, the developer unveiled plans to enter the state’s Brownfield cleanup program to address environmental contamination on the property that once hosted a thermometer factory and a gas station. But the lot is on the door step of the Peck Slip School and runs along several apartment buildings, and neighbors fear the work may impact the area’s air quality.

“I just feel like I’m in the dark about how they’re going to make sure the air we breath is safe,” said Sara Williams, whose son attends fourth grade at Peck Slip. “I’m honestly thinking about finding a new school for him because this site is right next to where the kids come out and play—who wants their children to run around next to where they’re pulling mercury out of the ground?”

Last month, representatives with Howard Hughes met with the school’s Parent Teacher Association and attended a town hall on the project at the nearby Southbridge Towers complex to address concerns, but residents say they were left with more questions than answers and are skeptical about the environmental remediation.

“With 9/11 we had people say the air is safe, with Flint, Michigan they said the water is safe—it’s a tough swallow for parents of tiny kids to believe in the process anymore,” said Emily Hellstrom, the co-president of the school’s Parent Teacher Association, who said some parents have told her they are considering enrolling their kids elsewhere. “These are savvy parents who do their homework and they have real concerns.”

Howard Hughes has applied to enter 250 Water Street into the Brownfield program, which incentivizes private-sector cleanups of contaminated land. The program is run by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation and offers tax breaks and a release of liability for any contamination that has migrated off of a property when an applicant volunteers into the program—the state would handle cleanups if any chemicals seeped into neighboring land.

Langan Engineering & Environmental Services, who is handling the project for Howard Hughes, discovered mercury preserved in soil at the site along with material known as historic fill—used to level a lot for building—which contains metals and semi-volatile organic compounds. A tank that has leaked petroleum into the earth is also burried on the land. Now that the developer is aware of these contaminates they’re mandated to clean them up and it’s a matter of which program that will happen through: the state’s Brownfield cleanup or a program with the city’s Office of Environmental Remediation.

Langan’s analysis of the property is only preliminary. If 250 Water Street is accepted into the Brownfield program, a more thorough investigation of the site will be conducted and a plan developed to address the contaminates, which could include removing some materials and leaving others after sealing them into the earth through a process known as capping.

No matter the program the work is completed through, the developer will have to adhere to a series of safety checks, but that hasn’t stopped nearly 200 worried locals from reaching out to Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou’s office.

“It’s definitely been a consistent community concern,” said Laurence Hong, Niou’s chief of staff. “We’re very concerned about contaminates the community could be exposed to and we want to make sure that if the application does go through, what’s the plan to ensure that there isn’t a negative impact, especially with a school right here.”

Messages of concern have also poured into City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office—whose children attended the Peck Slip School—which is monitoring the situation, a representative for his office said.

On Tuesday, roughly a dozen parents and neighbors gathered at the Peck Slip School’s entrance, handing out fliers with their concerns while waving homemade signs scrawled with “Keep our kids safe + healthy” and “Stop mercury from getting in our schools.”

Although the developer has attended several local meetings, a member of the Southbridge Towers tenant association calls for a greater level of transparency given Downtown's history.

“We don’t believe anybody anymore because we were told it was safe to come home after 9/11 and now we’re finding that wasn’t true,” said Elaine Kennedy, a long-time resident at the Southbridge Towers. “That’s what they have to realize. This is the milieu they’re working in.”

Howard Hughes pushed back on neighbors safety concerns Tuesday, noting that the Brownfield cleanup “is an extremely rigorous regulatory program designed to protect public health and the environment.”

“We plan to keep the public informed every step of the way so we are moving forward together based on the same set of facts—in alignment with the robust [Brownfield cleanup program] requirements—and will continue our series of community meetings to keep our neighbors up to date and address concerns,” said a spokesperson with Howard Hughes, which expects to be accepted into the Brownfield program imminently. “We want to reiterate that the safety and well-being of our community and the public is of the most critical concern to us.”