New Yorkers like to think their city is the biggest and baddest, and now there’s another reason for those sobriquets: last month, the former Wolff-Alport Chemical Company site – less than 1,000 feet from a public middle school and a private day care center- earned the title of most radioactive site in New York City today, and became the second radioactive site in New York City in the Superfund program’s history. On May 8, 2014, EPA listed the 3/4-acre property located at Irving Avenue and Cooper Avenue in Ridgewood, Queens, as a federal Superfund site. This is the third active federal Superfund site in New York City.
What is radioactive material doing in such a densely populated area? From 1920 through 1954, the Wolff-Alport Chemical Company processed monazite sands at its Ridgewood facility to extract rare-earth materials for industrial use. This produced waste byproducts containing the radioactive elements thorium and uranium. Until 1947, all radioactive process liquids were dumped into nearby sewers, and radioactive waste tailings were buried onsite. When thorium became marketable in 1947, Wolff-Alpert began selling its contaminated sludge to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which used the radioactive material, ironically, in its Manhattan Project research on atomic bombs.
Radiological contamination at the site has been recognized since at least 1987. In that year, the Department of Energy notified the City that the Wolff-Alport site was home to radioactive material associated with AEC operations, and considered the site for the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP). However, the DOE denied Wolff-Alport FUSRAP status at that time, as Wolff-Alport’s sale of thorium was an incidental byproduct of its commercial operations.
In 1988 and 2000, test results showed that radiation levels were below allowable dose limits for public exposure. But by 2007, radiation at the site was found to exceed normal NYC background levels. The City conducted further radiological surveys in 2010, and confirmed that elevated radiation levels were present on site. EPA then took over: it has been investigating the site and performing Interim Remedial Measures thereon since 2012.
Today, the six parcels which comprise the Wolff-Alpert site house a delicatessen, an auto body shop, a warehouse, and several other small businesses. In addition to the public school and day care, there are a number of residences a short distance from the site. In fact, more than 6,800 residents, students, and workers are typically found within ¼ mile of the site during the day time, and 1.8 million people reside within 4 miles.
At present, higher than normal levels of radioactivity radiate throughout the property, beneath public street and sidewalk areas, and in the sewers. Heavy exposure to thorium has been linked to various cancers and liver damage, and the concentration of thorium at the site now exceeds federally designated soil ingestion cancer risk levels. EPA maintains that this radioactivity is not an immediate threat to employees working in former Wolff-Alport buildings or to nearby residents, but has recognized the need for a long-term solution to this problem.
To protect the community, EPA has installed concrete, lead, and steel plates underneath floors and sidewalks as shields over radioactive hotspots, installed mitigation systems to reduce indoor air radiation levels, and obstructed pedestrian access to vacant affected areas. The Superfund designation enables EPA to develop an ongoing remedial strategy to reduce radiation exposure from the Wolff-Alport site. As the Wolff-Alport Chemical Company is now defunct, and cannot be held made to fund the remediation, the Superfund listing also allows EPA to search for potentially responsible parties (PRPs) to hold accountable for the costs of investigation and cleanup.