A Melrose dry cleaner that closed in 1968 is now the site of a toxic underground mess that is rattling nerves in 2022.
The fenced-in, grass-covered lot at 753 Melrose Ave. between an apartment building, a school athletic field and a community garden, was declared a Class 2 Superfund site in 2013. As the New York State Dept. of Environmental Conservation prepares a cleanup process that could take between five and 10 years to identify and remediate contaminants near the site, community leaders are pressing them to do more to include Melrose residents and businesses in the planning process.
In addition, residents want the DEC to station an employee in Melrose throughout the duration of the cleanup, to ensure risks are immediately identified, and to keep the community notified.
The hazard came to light in the early 2000s when a petroleum spill at the FDNY’s Engine Company 71/Ladder Company 55 at 720 Melrose Ave. across the street from the parcel prompted the DEC to investigate. Their probings revealed an unrelated problem—-chemical compounds, known as Chlorinated Volatile Organic Compounds, in groundwater 15-20 feet deep, traced to the long-defunct dry cleaner.
The DEC has found that some toxins from the site are vaporizing and escaping into the air, and have been detected as far down as E. 153rd Street. Remediation will consist of injecting chemicals into contaminated groundwater, and installing ventilation systems in buildings that could be impacted by vapors that the drilling could release.
So far, the DEC says it has identified vaporization in just one nearby building, the PSA-7 at 737 Melrose Avenue, headquarters for the South Bronx’s housing police, where the agency has installed a contaminant mitigation system.
But dozens of community members The Herald spoke with were unaware of the impending public health risks that exist now, or that could be stirred up during remediation. According to community activists, there has been little public information provided to homeowners, tenants or businesses near the site.
On May 25, members of Rainbow Community Garden next to the toxic lot organized a public meeting at Immaculate Conception Church, to inform community members about the problem and urge health and environmental officials to ramp up public education efforts.
As a result of the pressure, the DEC has agreed to push its original deadline for accepting public comments, from June 10 to June 30, but community organizers want the deadline extended to July 25.
Rainbow Garden member Angel Garica said that when residents established the garden on the city-owned lot next to the Superfund site in 2019, they saw the dry cleaners’ parcel as a natural addition. The original plan was to put it to use for people with autism, but the soil would have to be tested first.
“We said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could get that lot,’” Garcia recalled.
He and other garden members met periodically to study publicly available data about the parcel they coveted, and were alarmed to find they were planting their veggies in the shadow of a Superfund site. They were also stunned that no one in Melrose seemed to know anything about it.
“They say it was public information because it was on a website,” he said of the State’s contention it has kept the community informed. “You can say it was public, but the fact it was on a website doesn’t mean people knew about it. They did not.”
Jessica Clemente, executive director of Nos Quedamos, across the street from the lot, says that none of the tenants she has spoken with in the Melrose buildings it manages were aware of the contamination.
“They don’t even know there’s a problem, let alone what the solution should be,” said Clemente, who also worries about the risky remediation process.
“Once they put the slab in the ground to break up the chemicals, that could cause a hazard. The process will free up more junk. Folks don’t know this. What about the building next to the lot (747 Melrose Ave.)? Make sure the community understands what the exposures have been. How long is the process and what is the potential risk?”
Clemente, who attended the May 25 public meeting at the church, said the DEC representatives, all but one of whom attended virtually, were overly technical in their description of the problem.
“They did a disservice for not making a presentation that was digestible,” said Clemente.
When Clemente informed Community Board 1 members about the issue at Board 1’s virtual monthly meeting on May 26, Board Chair Arline Parks said she would demand a meeting with the agencies to determine next steps. She called the government agencies’ outreach campaign, “part of a disturbing pattern in this district. We’re not getting nearly enough notice, and that’s by design.”
James Garcia, 30, has lived for nine years at 730 Melrose Ave., a Nos Quedamos building next door to the organization’s main office. He says he, his wife and nine-year-old have all noticed feeling unusually lethargic in recent years.
“I thought at first I was just getting older,” said Garcia, before noting that the sluggishness was routinely affecting his whole family. He said no one came to his door to inform him or his wife of the potential risks of the Superfund site across the street.
In an emailed statement, the DEC told The Herald they are “overseeing the comprehensive cleanup of contamination from a former dry cleaners site on Melrose Ave to ensure the protection of public health and the environment. DEC will continue to engage the community and keep them informed as the cleanup continues.”
Rainbow Garden member Lorean Valentin said that, of the garden’s 30 members, not a single one knew of the problem before their fellow members dug into the data.
“To hear that they’ve done research and knocked on doors but they don’t have a plan…what doors did you knock on?” said Valentin, who, during the pandemic, conducted outreach for the city’s Health & Hospitals Test & Trace campaign.
“We’re at a time when people are not trusting government,” she added. “There may have been an oversight in the 1970s, but we’re here now.”
A copy of the DEC’s work plan and other relevant documents are available at the document repositories located at the New York Public Library Woodstock Branch, 761 East 160th Street, and Bronx Community Board 1, 3024 Third Avenue.
Access the RAWP and other project documents online through the DECinfo Locator: https://www.dec.ny.gov/data/DecDocs/203009/
Comments can be submitted to the site Project Manager Richard Mustico at 625 Broadway, 12th Floor, Albany, NY, 12233-7016; via email at email@example.com; or by calling 518-402-9647.