Vanessa Polanco cleaned up after flooding from Hurricane Sandy at her shop, Verde Flowers, on Lincoln Avenue, in October.

Storms could churn up toxic stew along Harlem River

While Hurricane Sandy left the South Bronx waterfront relatively intact, some environmentalists worry that the industrial and brownfield sites along the water could flood in the future and contaminate the neighborhood.

“Whenever there is a risk of flooding, then you have issues with what gets up out of the soil and spreads around the community,” said Gavin Kearney of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. That organization represents citizens group South Bronx Unite in its lawsuit to try to keep online grocer FreshDirect from relocating to the Harlem River Yard in Port Morris.

Groups like South Bronx Unite and the Bronx Council on Environmental Quality have been pressing for more parks and fewer industrial businesses along the waterfront for years. With climate change threatening more frequent severe storms and the surges they could bring, that push may become more urgent.

The city labels the entire Harlem River waterfront on the Bronx side a brownfield site, or a heavily contaminated site, according to the mayor’s Office of Environmental Remediation database, while the state Department of Environmental Conservation says there are a handful of such sites in the flood zone in Port Morris.

“There are contaminants in a lot of these areas, so you need to look at remediation,” said Paul Mankiewicz, biologist and director of the Gaia Institute. Brownfield sites may have lead or gasoline derivatives like benzene, he said. Potential spills from transformers around electric facilities or rail lines are also a concern, he said.

The evacuation zones in the South Bronx include the Harlem River Yard, Con Edison, and a few brownfield sites, one of which used to be a gas station.

The Bronx Council on Environmental Quality received $400,000 in grants to assess the brownfields along the river, and is currently in the second of three phases to determine the level of contamination.

Environmentalists point out that Sandy didn’t hit the South Bronx as hard as other coastal areas in the city because the land is naturally tucked away, unlike other low-lying parts of the city, such as the Rockaways or Staten Island.

“The Harlem River is a relatively narrow neck. We’re not going to get as much power delivered to that area,” said Mankiewicz. “It’s much less probable to get 12-14 feet of a surge in the South Bronx.”

But it could be different next time. As Hurricane Sandy demonstrated, scientists say that New York City is not sufficiently prepared for severe coastal flooding.

One business, Verde Flowers on Bruckner Boulevard, was severely flooded by the storm surge in October. Owner Vanessa Polanco, who had to replace floors and computers and open the walls, was worried about what contaminants came in with the flooding.

“We didn’t have any kind of sewage come up and catch us, thank God,” she said. “It’s not to say that we didn’t have crazy dirt and God knows what things from the cars sitting there. It kind of all swept in there.”

Two industrial sites along the river in Port Morris were luckier though, suffering only minimal disruption from the storm. Waste Management, a waste transfer company, had some flooding in their weight station, which weighs the garbage for transport, but continued to operate, said Rachael Amar, a company spokeswoman. FedEx feared flooding but had none, said spokeswoman Virginia Martinez.

One brownfield site located 1,000 feet from the Harlem River at 2477 Third Ave. is in Zone B of the hurricane evacuation zone, indicating the area is at moderate risk of coastal flooding from storm surges. The site was a gas station from the 1950s through the late 1980s and was contaminated by petroleum products. The state will complete cleanup of the site sometime next year as part of the Brownfield Cleanup Program, according to the environmental conservation agency.

Although Dart Westphal, chair of the Water Committee at the Bronx Council on Environmental Quality, is more concerned about long-term exposure from brownfield sites than the kind of short-term exposure that might come with flooding, he says there isn’t much “virgin soil” left in the city.

“You have to start with the idea that they are all brownfields,” he said. “The odds are really good that something got dumped there in the last 400 years.”

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