Angel Garcia, left, takes DEC officials on a walk around parts of Melrose where air and water are being tested for contamination, in December 2023. By Joe Hirsch.

                           Community urges state to ramp up clean-up efforts and boost transparency.

Contamination at the site of a Melrose dry cleaner that closed more than 50 years ago has prompted residents and the local community board to demand the State take a much more aggressive role cleaning up an eight-block radius around it.

The business closed in 1968, leaving in the ground behind it a chemical known as PCE, commonly used by dry cleaners during the 1960s. Today it is a vacant lot, located between an apartment building and a community garden. A firehouse and the station house for the housing police, PSA-7, are located a block away.

The Department of Environmental Conservation has detected potentially hazardous vapors and contaminated groundwater from the old spill, between East 153rd and 157th streets, from Courtlandt Avenue on the western edge to Elton Avenue on the eastern edge.

In 2019, the DEC oversaw remediation in the PSA-7 station house at 737 Melrose Avenue, to remove impacted air before potentially toxic vapors escaped into the building, as a precautionary measure.

The agency is now planning a 10-year, $3.4 million clean-up of the entire affected area, with funds from the State Superfund, and says it has failed to locate the owner of the defunct dry cleaner to pick up some of the cost.

At Board 1’s Environmental Justice and Sanitation Committee February meeting, a local resident, Angel Garcia, said the DEC should post staff in Melrose for the duration of the remediation, to oversee the clean-up and keep residents apprised.

In 2022, Garcia formed a concerned citizens group called the Melrose Environmental Awareness Committee, and has since organized community meetings between residents and the DEC. But despite the DEC’s assurances it is doing its part through a remediation process called In Situ Chemical Oxidation, “not much has been done after to remediate the contamination,” Garcia said.

“Some of us conducted petitioning for several days,” he added. “When we explained this issue to people living there, many of them stated that they didn’t even know.”

Prompted by Garcia’s activism, Board 1 sent a letter to the DEC’s commissioner, Basil Seggos, in April, urging the agency to station a representative in the South Bronx.

Currently The DEC’s only regional office in the five boroughs is in Queens.

In its letter, Board 1 said “Hundreds of families and individuals who live, work, volunteer, worship, and do business in the area are affected by the PCE contamination from a former dry cleaner site at 753 Melrose Avenue,” and that the DEC’s clean-up efforts so far are “not enough. This community has been unaware of the contamination, studies, and remediation plans for the past 20 years. Therefore, we support the community’s demands for NYS/DEC to act further on its plans, to right an environmental injustice.”

They are asking for:

  • Contamination testing of every building on every block in the project area;
  • Full remediation of every building found with contamination by PCE or other chemicals found in the testing;
  • Full health testing for everyone who lives and works in the area for signs of contamination.

In addition, they urge the DEC to assign staff to maintain “full and regular communication with our communities and elected officials’ offices” in Melrose, with “regular reporting sessions for the project’s life in person and in the affected communities,” rather than “accepting that this project will be supervised from Albany, over 150 miles from the site and from the Melrose community, for the next 10 years.”

Last December at a community walk organized by Garcia with residents and elected officials, the DEC’s statewide director of remediation, Andrew Guglielmi, said no public health danger from the dry cleaner spill has been identified through extensive testing.

“What we found so far is no indoor air has been negatively impacted,” Guglielmi told the group on the walking tour, adding the DEC will continue “going into buildings to ensure that people are not exposed to this contamination.”

“This is an issue weve come across, not only in the South Bronx but all over New York State,” from defunct dry cleaners, Guglielmi said.

Assemblywoman Amanda Septimo, whose district includes Mott Haven, said at the December walk, “When is it incumbent on our government to have information and share it back with community? When do we have to step in and say this isn’t right, let’s step in and fix it?”

The DEC reiterated in an email to the Herald that “groundwater contamination at the site is being addressed and does not present a direct pathway to human contact” adding, “potential offsite indoor air impacts from groundwater contamination have been thoroughly investigated throughout the known zone of potential impact and comprehensively addressed where found.”

The in-situ chemical oxidation  remediation process treats groundwater contaminated with PCE by injecting chemicals into the affected site to break up the more harmful chemicals and make them less toxic. 

The DEC will determine locations to inject the dispersing chemical, starting from the spill site and going south along Melrose Avenue. It estimates that the chemical oxidant will be injected into the ground once per year for three years. During the work, community members may see or hear drilling equipment and tanker trucks where the work takes place.

Additional reporting by Joe Hirsch. 

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