Lead Hook: Ball fields laden with heavy metal, says EPA

Call it Red Hook’s dead-ball era.

The Environmental Protection Agency has discovered dangerous levels of lead in the Red Hook Ball Fields, and now it is forcing the city to close the toxic playground and shell out $50 million to clean it up.

A smelting facility that operated at corner of Lorraine and Hicks streets in the 1920s spewed lead-filled smoke into the air for a decade, according a federal investigator. The smelter closed in the ’30s, but the toxic fumes left a lasting legacy, she said.

“The problem with lead is that once it’s in the soil, it stays there,” said Margaret Gregor, who researched the toxic history of the site for the agency.

The feds usually force whoever is responsible for contaminating land in the first place to pay for its cleanup. But the smelter is long gone, so the city, which first built sports fields on the site in the 1940s, is on the hook, an attorney for the agency said.

“There is nothing left of that smelting company to even pursue, so the only party that we have then is the owner of the property,” said site attorney Andy Praschak.

Lead doesn’t decompose and removing the dirt could stir up toxic dust clouds, so the safest way to deal with the filth it to cover it up, Gregor said. Federal guidelines require the city to lay a special liner over the contaminated soil, then pile on at least a foot of clean dirt and a few inches of porous material — so the field can drain if there is a storm — before laying down new sod or synthetic turf, she said.

The Parks Department hasn’t drawn up exact plans for the clean-up, but it will likely end up paying “well in excess of $50 million,” said borough parks czar Kevin Jeffrey.

The city first found lead in the land in 2012, and responded by paving over the worst spots, laying new topsoil over the fields, and replanting the grass — measures approved by the Department of Health and the feds, a parks spokeswoman said.

But the Environmental Protection Agency looked into the land itself in March last year — after the state environmental commission asked it to investigate sites near historical smelting facilities — and found lead at three times the level that is considered safe in ball fields bounded by Hicks, Henry, Lorraine, and Bay streets, so the city closed those grounds. After more digging this year, the feds also found dangerous levels of lead levels in a fifth field over the other side of Bay Street.

The fields are a major source of green space for residents of the nearby Red Hook Houses — the largest public housing development in the borough — and little-league teams come from as far as Park Slope to play there. The city is keeping the fifth field — the least toxic of the sites — open until it finishes disinfecting the other four fields in 2018, so locals still have somewhere to play ball, Jeffrey said.

The city says it isn’t aware of any Red Hookers getting sick from the contaminated land.

“Recent [lead poisoning] cases are very low and they have all been traced back to children eating lead paint,” said Department of Health spokeswoman Maureen Little.

The feds don’t currently plan on kicking in any money for the project, Gregor said. But if the agency find any vestige of the smelting company still exits, it could go after it for cleanup cash — and it is taking tips, said Praschak, adding he’d have like someone with deep pockets to be culpable.

“If anybody has information we don’t know, we certainly want to hear it,” he said. “Actually, I wish Donald Trump had been the one, I guarantee I’d bring him in.”

Reach reporter Max Jaeger at mjaeg[email protected]glocal.com or by calling (718) 260–8303. Follow him on Twitter @JustTheMax.