Luis Garden Acosta was walking down Kent Avenue one day when he noticed a radioactive hazard symbol on a side door. “I was pretty shocked,” he says. “I knew that symbol well, and I was just confounded to think that there would be anything [radioactive] one block from a public school building, or in a residential neighborhood.”
The building belonged to Radiac Research Corporation, which handles and ships chemicals and low-level radioactive waste. The chemicals come from everything from dry cleaners to print shops, the radioactive waste mostly from hospitals. While waste brokerage is a legal and necessary activity, the location is far from ideal. An elementary school, P.S. 84, sits a block away and over the years the neighborhood has become the focus of more residential development.
Garden Acosta first noticed Radiac in the late 1980s, when Williamsburg was a forgotten part of Brooklyn, not the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of today. As the director of El Puente, a community organization based in Williamsburg’s predominantly Latino Southside, Garden Acosta asked a group of teenagers who were interested in neighborhood environmental activism to work on Radiac as their first project.
“At that time the environment was more the province of older white men on horses, the Sierra Club, certainly not of inner-city youth, or people of color,” he explains. “We had other issues that were more important. At least that is what the greater society said to us. I certainly never felt that way.”
The group called themselves the Toxic Avengers and set out researching the site and knocking on doors to speak to neighbors, most of who did not realize they lived next to a facility that stored toxic and radioactive waste. Now, nearly 20 years later and after numerous attempts to close the facility, Radiac may finally be history. Ironically, the very market forces ravaging Wiliamsburg’s long-established communities just may spell Radiac’s demise, but Garden Acosta is focused on the upside.
“There’s [unfortunately] nothing like economic incentive to move a moral question.”
You’d be forgiven for walking past Radiac without noticing it. There is not much to distinguish the flat-roofed warehouse at Kent Avenue and Grand Street in Williamsburg, save a small radioactive hazard sign on a side door.
Radiac is something of an anachronism. Current environmental laws would not allow such a facility to be built in New York City today. At the same time, community resistance tends to make it all but impossible to relocate such facilities. Radiac’s owners could not move it even if they wanted.
“The perverse effect of tighter regulations is to lock in past injustice,” says Richard Webster, a lawyer and environmental scientist, who has worked pro-bono with El Puente and other community organizations against Radiac.
To Webster, Radiac is essentially an environmental justice case. “The worst facilities are often located in communities that would qualify for considerations of environmental justice if they were new permits,” Webster says. “The only reason this facility has operated for so long—even though it’s so dangerous—is because it is in a mostly minority neighborhood. It is sad that the only way things change is if a bunch of new people move in.”
Community organizations filed to close Radiac in 1989, and the first major accomplishment was in 2005 when Radiac ceased storing hazardous waste and became a transfer station. It would be a relief to many in the neighborhood if Radiac closed entirely. Yet the larger environmental picture would remain the same. Hazardous and radioactive waste would still be produced in New York City.
“The shipping might have to go farther, and there would be some loss of efficiency and an increased cost to those who generate the waste, that would perhaps lead to an effort to decrease waste, which would be good,” says Walter Mugdan, Environmental Protection Agency, Region 2’s Director of the Division of Environmental Planning and Protection. “But if your supermarket closes down, you simply go farther away to get your groceries.”
When Radiac was built in 1969, the Williamsburg waterfront was still a major, though waning, center of industry and shipping. By the mid-1970s environmental concerns over industrial by-products were mounting around the country, and in 1976, Congress responded by passing the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which governs safety and procedures for hazardous waste facilities. One RCRA law requires any facility storing hazardous waste to be set 50 feet from the property line. This precaution is not possible for Radiac given its small, narrow city lot, so Radiac applied for and received a waiver on the 50-foot rule.
Three decades later, Radiac still operates at the same location, and it is still non-compliant with RCRA in several respects. “The environmental laws that were enacted in the 1970s and 1980s are very rigorous and are designed to try to ensure that new facilities cannot pose a threat to health or the environment and that is all for the good,” says Michael Gerrard, an environmental lawyer and head of the New York office of the law firm Arnold & Porter, who has worked pro bono with community organizations against Radiac. But Gerrard echoes Webster’s sentiment that such laws keep old, poorly sited facilities operating.
Realtors these days market Williamsburg as a bedroom community for the hip and affluent—at the cost of displacing longtime residents who can’t afford the rising rents. Despite fancy new granite lobbies and designer boutiques, the area still carries many environmental reminders of a heavy industrial past; asthma rates here have long been among the highest in the city.
Radiac is far from the most hair-raising instance of toxic flotsam. One of the largest oil spills in the nation, 17 million gallons of petroleum, lies under Greenpoint, affecting an underground reservoir larger than 50 acres. The discarded oil occasionally bubbles up in backyards and the nearby Newtown Creek. Numerous old industrial lots polluted by less visible chemicals and industrial waste also dot the area.
Luis Garden Acosta was the director of community medicine at Greenpoint Hospital when he founded El Puente in 1982. Part of his incentive was to curb the gang violence that had cost 48 lives in the neighborhood that year. El Puente grew into a powerful local force. Today it encompasses a high school and three community centers: two in Williamsburg and one in neighboring Bushwick.
Its involvement sparked a sizeable community campaign that saw El Puente working together with the Satmar Hasidic community, which was a rare collaboration at the time. Garden Acosta describes Williamsburg in those years as a “Balkanized state” because the tensions were so high between the two communities.
Rivalry over public housing was one flashpoint; however, the different groups came together over the Radiac issue. At one point, Garden Acosta and Rabbi David Niederman, a leader in the Satmar community, marched together through Williamsburg on the night of a public hearing on Radiac emergency procedure at P.S. 84. The meeting was packed from door to door, with people standing when seats were filled. Radiac was there to talk about emergency procedures and how to flee in case of an accident. “Where are you going to go? The Williamsburg Bridge?” Garden Acosta asks.
Despite the community interest and support, this early campaign did not succeed in closing Radiac at that time, and other issues eventually took precedence for El Puente.
Another group that was mobilizing around environmental concerns in the area was Neighbors Against Garbage, now Neighbors Allied for Good Growth: NAGG. Sculptor Deborah Masters, a longtime activist who worked with NAGG, became interested in environmental issues in the early 1990s when she was working for former city councilman Kenneth Fisher. “I just wasn’t very good at anything else,” she says wryly. “Like being polite and such things.”
It is easy to believe Masters can be abrasive, but she is no negativist. She even had some kind words for Radiac. She conceded the management consists of hard-working, intelligent people who once did a “really good job,” at cleaning up a mystery batch of radioactive waste at the Newtown Creek sewage plant when she was community liaison there (emergency response is another aspect of Radiac’s business).
Masters is blunt, however, regarding her concerns about the safety at Radiac. Highly toxic chemicals are allowed to exist within a few feet of each other, she explains. Reports and statements by EPA officials confirm this. “If there was ever a fire, you can’t get out of the radioactive waste facility without going through the chemical place,” says Masters. “And if you open the door to the chemical place it would be a massive explosion.”
Though some problems were cleared up, Masters feels that procedures are still questionable. “You’re gonna die,” she says. “They take [radioactive waste] across Kent Avenue on a hand truck. Isn’t that amazing?”
Arthur F. Green is one of Radiac’s founders and owners. He is unwilling to talk much about what Radiac does, and he says he’s been hounded by reporters and community activists long enough. “I’m normally a pretty calm person, but this really pisses me off. It truly does. I am not willing to go through any of this crap again. What I will say is that what I do, I do very well. Without any incidents in 30 or 40 years of being here.” Green adds that Radiac has passed inspections by licensing and regulatory agencies “with flying colors.”
For Mugdan, the EPA director, the truth lies somewhere between Green’s claim of a spotless record and Masters’ claim of grave negligence. Among other things, Radiac has been fined for storing containers of hazardous waste on damaged pallets and stacking containers well past the three layers permitted by regulation. None of these violations were catastrophic, and none led to any accidents; but, Mugdan said, there were many of them. Radiac was inspected eight times between 2000 and 2003 and found to be in compliance every time. “There was a bad compliance record in the late 1990s. Once we got on their case, they got their act together and got much better. When they were applying for a new permit, they were of course on their best behavior.”
One of the more serious problems mentioned by Mugdan is two officers and directors of the company caught forging training records to show employees had been trained when in fact they had not. “This kind of violation could be considered criminal conduct.” says Mugdan. “They weren’t prosecuted criminally for reasons that I don’t know.”
Whether or not laws were broken, most feel that it is precisely Radiac’s legal business that poses a potential danger. “As long as Radiac is in compliance with the law, then by definition the agencies would have to say that they can operate,” said Mugdan. “I think if you got some of them over a beer in private they would say, ‘Yeah this is not really a brilliant place for this kind of facility to be located.’”
According to Michael Gerrard, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation files obtained from Radiac under a Freedom of Information Act request included a report from Radiac’s fire-safety consultant indicating serious problems at the site from entirely plausible accidents. “The greatest danger,” he explains, “is not when waste is stored but when it is moved.” Given that Radiac is a transfer facility, this is disconcerting. “It is this narrow little space and they have to back trucks into it between rows of drums.” Gerrard added in an understatement: “It is quite remarkable.”
In 2003, renewal was pending for Radiac’s RCRA permit. El Puente revitalized its campaign and managed to get a hearing on the case, “We finally forced the Department of Environmental Conservation [DEC] to live up to its own regulations,” says Garden Acosta. “They had never had a community hearing on re-licensing, not since the 1960s.”
Leading up to the permit hearing on May 23, 2005, the community coalition and their lawyers met with various state and federal agencies. The community activists lobbied strongly with the EPA and the State of New York against renewing the exemption from the 50-foot setback requirement. “They knew if the waiver was not granted, Radiac would not be able to get a permit as a storage facility,” Mugdan says.
Radiac initially offered to make certain improvements to their facilities in exchange for keeping the permit with the waiver. These improvements included installing a state of the art fire-suppression system and a vault where the hazardous waste could be stored. However there were no takers.
A month after the hearing, on June 15, 2005, the case was scheduled to go before the DEC. The permit hung in the balance. It was up to the community coalition to prove that Radiac was an immediate threat; Radiac needed to show evidence that they were harmless. Then, dramatically, Radiac withdrew their application the night before the trial.
“We made the public very, very happy and that’s as far as we are going,” says Green. “It would have cost too much to go through the proposed changes, so after deep consideration and with the legal processes involved, it was decided to withdraw the application.”
This meant Radiac would give up their right to store hazardous waste for more than 10 days and is no longer a storage facility in the legal sense of the word. Radiac is now a transfer facility. They still handle and house the same chemicals, so the low-level radioactive aspect of their business is unchanged. (A bureaucratic quirk has the two types of waste fall under the jurisdiction of two separate agencies, even though they are handled in the same facility.)
“Word got out in the community that we won. We didn’t,” says Garden Acosta. “Barrels of chemicals and [radioactive] stuff, it is all still there and their lack of security is legendary.”
Now Garden Acosta and others feel like they have another chance. Radiac’s radioactive materials license expires on September 30, 2008, and Garden Acosta is gearing up for a new campaign: It’s what he calls “my form of triangulation” to make sure the license is not renewed. He faces the challenge of organizing the community at a time when many people are being pushed out by rising rents and new developments.
“We are now, the Latino community especially, focused on affordable housing,” explains Garden Acosta. “That is the major issue. There is a class-cleansing going on.” Still, he is confident the coalition of community leaders he worked with in the last campaign will still step up to the challenge.
Many of those involved seem to have heard rumors that Radiac wants to sell the lot and cash out if the price is right. Garden Acosta is considering ways of making this happen. While getting ready for work one morning, he came to think about the drug-free zone law introduced by Brooklyn Assemblyman Joe Lentol in 1989. “I always get my best ideas when shaving,” he says. “I was laughing to myself at how [Lentol] had pulled that, and I thought, gee, why don’t we create toxic-free zones?”
He spoke to Lentol, who then introduced bill A07995 to the New York State Legislature in May 2007. Students at P.S. 84 were marshaled by Garden Acosta to help meter out an appropriate distance. The bill proposes that any toxic waste facility must be at least 1,500 feet from any school building. This would put Radiac well within the prohibited zone and effectively outlaw the business. Lentol is unsure if the bill will pass, but according to him, there is a symbolic value to it.
“The permit is coming up for renewal. We want to show that the state legislature understands that it is something that needs to be looked at and let regulators know that we don’t want Radiac there,” he says. If the bill doesn’t go through, Garden Acosta’s plan B is to wage another legal battle.
“To be honest with you, from a legal standpoint. If someone offered me money to go, I’d be ready to. That’s a business decision,” admits Radiac’s Green. “But right now this is where I am; this is where I am licensed. This is what I do.”
So, it may be high real estate values that finally cause the radioactive business to close up shop, not the valiant efforts of community leaders. And the truth is, the closure of Radiac would relieve Williamsburg of some environmental hazards—but larger issues remain.
“On some level it is a zero-sum game. It is not like the waste disappears if Radiac goes,” says Mugdan. “It is actually quite useful to have facilities like Radiac, it is just in the wrong location.”
There is also the issue of cleaning up the Radiac lot, were it to be converted to residential use. It is a fairly common procedure in this post-industrial neck of the woods. Toxic sites all over Brooklyn and Queens have undergone similar transformations.
The business itself is responsible for the sanitation, under supervision of the DEC and the EPA. “If Radiac throughout their operation had a perfect record where the concrete floor slab never cracked and there were never any leaks, the clean-up would be fairly simple, you would just take away the contaminated concrete and dispose of that,” explains Mugdan. In order to get a RCRA permit, businesses are required to set aside funds for cleanup. “The dirty little secret is that over the years the amount of money people have demonstrated they have access to hasn’t necessarily kept pace with the cost.” Mugdan adds that because of the intense review of Radiac in the last 10 years, their estimate is likely accurate.
The process would include thorough analysis of contamination in and below the building. If the soil is contaminated, it’s excavated. If the ground water is contaminated, then that needs to be cleaned up too. “None of the groundwater in Brooklyn is used for drinking purposes,” explains Mugdan. “So there might not be any real reason to deal with it.” In any case, the water table in North Brooklyn is polluted to the point where it would be difficult to pin it on any one business.
You do not need to ingest contaminated soil or water to be affected by it. If you build a residential building above it without taking proper precautions, vapors from the hazardous waste could make their way up and be a danger to the people living there. “To avoid that, you put vapor barriers underneath and install a little vapor-extraction system with a fan that blows out the vapors, it is actually a fairly easy and cheap thing to do,” Mugdan says.
Granted, a fan to disperse toxic vapors might not strike everyone as the ideal set-up. So far, market forces have trumped environmental squeamishness. In the not-too-distant future we may see “luxury-style” condos on top of the lot that used to host a facility for low-level radioactive waste and toxic chemicals. It’s not such a far-fetched idea. After all, just a few blocks to the north in Greenpoint, people pay good money to live in upscale developments atop an oil spill.