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Mercury near Fort Totten is safe, officials announce

After a four-year analysis of mercury contamination in Little Bay, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said last week that no cleanup was necessary, a position that left local residents questioning the methods used to investigate pollution in the waters off Fort Totten.

"Mercury is present in the sediment of Little Bay adjacent to Building 615 at the Fort Totten Coast Guard Station," according to the proposed remedial action plan prepared by the Corps of Engineers. "The mercury, however, does not pose a significant threat to human health or the environment."

A sticking point at the meeting, held last Thursday at Bayside's Adria Hotel and attended by about 15 northeast Queens residents, was the definition of "significant," which representatives of the government agencies could not quantify to the satisfaction of the audience.

"There is no way to tell you with absolute certainty that there is no problem out there," said David Brouwer, project manager for the Corps of Engineers. "We can't quantify it in absolute, black-and-white terms."

Mercury, a heavy metal that can cause neurological damage to humans, was discovered by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1985 at Fort Totten, then a military base shared by the Coast Guard and the Army.

The fort was used in the 19th and 20th centuries for maintenance of searchlights, mines and torpedoes, all of which contained mercury that was released into Little Bay through floor drains in Building 615.

The drainage pipes were removed in 1998. Investigation of contaminants in the uplands portion of the Coast Guard property, including pesticides and PCB's, is being handled separately and has not yet reached the public comment phase.

The latest tests of Little Bay, conducted from 1998 to 2000, included analyses of mercury levels in the water, sediments, fish and shellfish.

Testing of 46 seafood specimens, such as oysters and white flounder, found that some contained as much as 270 parts per billion of mercury. While there is no state standard for an acceptable level of mercury in edible fish, federal guidelines set the limit at 1,000 parts per billion.

As part of its conclusion that the mercury in the sediments of Little Bay did not pose a threat to public health, the government agencies recommended that more fish and shellfish be tested in five years' time to confirm that mercury levels have remained low.

Some community members suggested that 46 samples were not enough. Others expressed concern that the state's suggested limits on fish consumption from Little Bay were based not on mercury levels but on other toxins.

The limits include a "no eat" advisory for striped bass by women of childbearing age and children under age 15; no more than half a pound a week of striped bass for other populations; and no more than one pound a week of American eel and marine bluefish.

U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Bayside) said that left people with a "queasy feeling."

"The science is not honed well enough, even with mercury," said Ackerman.

There was concern that state advisories against consumption of fish from Little Bay would not reach immigrant populations who use the bay for subsistence fishing.

"You need to take into consideration that people in Queens do eat the fish," said area resident Karen Hubela.

Phil Konigsberg, president of the Bay Terrace Community Alliance, questioned the study's focus on mercury rather than on all contaminants in the bay, such as PCBs and other carcinogens.

"Speaking as a Bay Terrace resident, I am bothered by the fact that we have a responsible party that caused a portion of our hometown to become contaminated and now wants to pack up and leave without removing all of the toxic materials," said Konigsberg.

Brouwer responded that levels of other toxic substances in the bay were no higher than those in the greater New York area, and thus could not be directly attributed to Defense Department activities.

Complicating matters was the pending approval of a catering hall at Totten and the fort's anticipated recreational use once part of the former military base is transferred to the city Parks Department.

Ackerman and others worried that sediments close to the shoreline were not tested deeply enough to account for pilings being driven into the ground and possibly stirring up contamination if a docking pier is built for boaters.

The congressman requested that the Corps of Engineers collect deeper samples closer to the shoreline "just to see what we have there and if there is any reason for concern."

Brouwer promised to look into it and agreed to hold another public meeting closer to Bay Terrace before the current public comment period expires Feb. 2.

After that, the Corps of Engineers will review the comments and decide whether to modify the plan to not clean up Little Bay. Final approval rests with the DEC. Once a decision has been made, a meeting will be held with the Restoration Advisory Board, the civilian group monitoring the testing process.

The current plan is available for viewing online at www.nan.usace.army.mil or at the Bay Terrace Public Library, 18-36 Bell Blvd. Written comments can be addressed to David Brouwer, Project Manager, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New York District, 190 State Highway 18, Suite 202, East Brunswick, N.J. 08816.

Reach reporter Ayala Ben-Yehuda by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.

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