Feds designate Greenpoint’s Meeker Avenue Plume a Superfund site

meeker avenue plume map
A map of the Meeker Avenue Plume, a roughly 50-block area sitting atop contaminated soil and groundwater. The federal Environmental Protection Agency officially added the Plume to the National Priorities List last week.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has finalized its decision to designate Greenpoint’s Meeker Avenue Plume a Superfund site, setting the stage for a federally-supervised scrub of the site, possibly funded by the companies responsible for polluting the neighborhood.

Bounded roughly by Norman Avenue to the north, Kingsland Avenue to the west, the Newtown Creek to the east and Withers Street to the south, the roughly 50-block Plume is comprised of soil and groundwater contaminated with dangerous chlorinated volatile organic compounds, or CVOCs, left behind by now-shuttered businesses including metalsmiths and dry cleaners. 

Two of the compounds in particular — tetrachloroethylene and trichloroethylene — are known carcinogens and can cause short-and-long term health issues with continued exposure.

Of particular concern to the EPA, the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and community members, investigations have found contaminated air inside homes and businesses atop the Plume as a result of what’s known as “soil vapor intrusion.”

EPA officials proposed adding the Plume to the National Priorities List last September, after New York State referred the site to the agency “because groundwater and indoor air contaminated with CVOCs require cleanup to protect human health and the environment,” according to the site listing narrative.

“I strongly urged that the Meeker Avenue Plume be included as a Superfund cleanup site over a decade ago when I was working with the community to designate Newtown Creek,” said US Rep. Nydia Velázquez, in a release. “Working families have a right to live in a place that supports good public health, and I am thankful that EPA has put the Meeker Avenue Plume on the Superfund National Priorities List.”

meeker avenue plume spic and span
The former site of Spic and Span Cleaners, one of the sites identified by the state as contributing to the toxic Meeker Avenue Plume. File photo by Tom Callan.

While DEC has been investigating the Plume and installing mitigation systems to keep contaminated air out of affected homes and businesses since 2007, additional resources are needed to make the area safe. Additional state and federal cleanup options were considered, according to the listing narrative, but were not viable.

“Hundreds of residents and workers are exposed to the indoor air contamination that results from vapor intrusion into the structures,” the document states. “Contaminated groundwater in the underlying aquifer flows east northeast and possibly discharges to Newtown Creek, an arm of the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary.”

Now that the site’s place on the list has been finalized, the EPA will begin a remedial investigation and feasibility study to identify the full extent of the contamination, assess potential threats to human health and the surrounding environment, and begin planning the eventual cleanup.

“Working collaboratively with DEC, our federal partners will deploy the best available science and resources to protect the Greenpoint and East Williamsburg communities by addressing the soil, soil vapor, and groundwater plume in the vicinity of Meeker Avenue, and continue the critical work of preventing potential exposure to the public,” said DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos, in a release.

The Superfund program was founded in part to allow the federal government to identify the parties — often, large companies — responsible for the pollution and charge them for the cleanup, rather than paying for it themselves. Past investigations have named a number of businesses who contributed to the contamination, though it’s not clear whether any of them will be designated PRPs by the federal agency as they begin their own investigation. 

“Our neighbors in Greenpoint and Williamsburg have been dealing with hazardous vapor intrusion for decades due to dumping and industrial manufacturing,” said local Councilmember Lincoln Restler. “Now, the EPA Superfund designation will ensure our health is finally prioritized with the overdue cleanup of our community.”

If PRPs are not named, or if the companies in question no longer exist, the site is considered an “orphan site,” and cleanup is fully paid for by the federal government. The federal infrastructure bill passed last year allocated $3.5 billion to cleaning up those sites. 

In a visit to Newtown Creek, Greenpoint’s other Superfund site, earlier this month, Senator Chuck Schumer said he hoped the additional funding would be a boon toward the non-orphan sites as well, since it would increase the EPA’s strained resources.

The Plume is Brooklyn’s fourth Superfund site. The Wolff-Alport Chemical Company, which straddles the border of Bushwick and Ridgewood, Queens, is an “orphan” site, which has seen very little work since it was named to the NAPL in 2014. Newtown Creek, which directly abuts the Plume, has also been quiet — the EPA most recently said they expected to announce their cleanup plan for the body of water in 2024. The Gowanus Canal, a few miles south of the Plume, is probably the borough’s most well-known Superfund, and the one with the most activity — dredging and other cleanup activities have been ongoing since 2020.

The discovery

The state Department of Health and DEC first started their investigation of the Meeker Avenue Plume in 2007, after ongoing cleanup of the 1950 Greenpoint Oil Spill found CVOCs commonly used in dry cleaning and metalworking in the soil.

Two years later, DEC added the former site of Spic and Span Cleaners and Dryers on Kingsland Avenue to the Inactive Hazardous Waste Disposal Site Program as part of the State Superfund program after identifying the lot as a source of the dangerous chemicals. Greenpoint is also home to a second, unrelated state Superfund, the former NuHart Plastics plant, which is being cleansed for redevelopment less than a mile north of the Plume.

nuhart plastics
The old NuHart Plastics factory is in the midst of an in-depth cleanup under both state Superfund and Brownfield cleanup programs.File photo by Stefano Giovannini

Neighbors and local groups, like the Newtown Creek Alliance, have been pushing for faster remediation for years, worried about the still-unclear ramifications of living and working in such a heavily-contaminated area. Last fall, they joined forces with North Brooklyn Neighbors to push for the EPA to include the site after the initial proposal, encouraging neighbors to submit comments in support of the addition to the EPA. 

“We celebrate the designation as a critical step towards cleaning up the Plumes,” the Alliance said in a tweet. “The designation is a major step towards a thorough cleanup of this longstanding hazard and protecting the health of everyone who lives and works on top of these toxic Plumes.”

The investigation and planning processes are likely to take years — the Gowanus Canal sat mostly untouched for a decade before dredging started, and Newtown Creek is still waiting for a plan. In any case, the densely-populated nature of the neighborhood likely means the process will look quite different from the mostly in-water activity at the canal.