Today’s news:

Fear of benzene fumes sparks reaction

Is it a case of another War of the Worlds-type scare tactic or published reports overstating facts? Either way, concerns regarding noxious fumes and chemicals coming from the Gowanus Industrial corridor are being addressed. Stuck in the middle of the brouhaha is Whole Foods, which first reported traces of benzene and other contaminants while doing a by-the-book cleanup of a former industrial site where they plan on building a store. “This information about the contamination is not something that would have come up unless Whole Foods was not voluntarily participating in the Brownfield cleanup program,” said Community Board 6 District Manager Craig Hammerman. “We hate to think that information that was disclosed will ultimately have an effect on people and companies doing the right thing and remedying contaminated sites in the future,” said Hammerman. Hammerman said contamination in this mile-long area – bounded by 4th Avenue of the east, Hamilton Avenue on the south, Butler Street on the north and Bond and Smith Streets on the West – is not anything new. There have been publicized instances in the past where employees at both the Verizon and Con Ed sites have complained of illnesses, Hammerman said. The Verizon site is located on the northwest corner of Third Avenue and Third Street. The Con Ed site is located on the northeast corner of the intersection and the Whole Foods site is at the southwest corner of the intersection. According to a state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) fact sheet put out last month regarding a draft remedial work plan for the Whole Foods site, the Gowanus Canal/4th Street Basin was originally a wetlands area. The site was created by filling the wetlands during the mid-1800s and the early 1990s and specific sources of fill material are unknown, according to the fact sheet. However, according to the United States Army Corps of Engineers, the canal is filled with 20 feet of ash in some places and it was a common practice to use demolition debris, ash and furnace slag as riverfront fill. During the late 1800s through 2004, the site was the location of numerous industrial operations, including coal yards, an ice company, lumberyards, a petroleum oil company, a building materials company, a trucking company, a freight depot, and an automobile junkyard and automobile repair shop. Contamination related to these former industrial operations included the BTEX compounds benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes. These are volatile organic hydrocarbons found in most petroleum products such as gasoline, according to the DEC fact sheet. While benzene was found in the Whole Foods ground water, it is being remediated and determined to not be coming from that particular site. At press time, the DEC is continuing to investigate the source of the benzene, although there has been some speculation it is coming from an abandoned garage behind the Verizon site. In the meantime, a published report that plumes of noxious gasses permeating the area have put a scare into residents and local workers, some of whom have called in sick. Verizon spokesperson John Bonomo said several employees saw the report and expressed concerns to management. Verizon did some air testing about a week ago and the results have not come in yet, said Bonomo. City Councilmember Bill de Blasio it is his understanding that the source of the contamination has yet to be discovered. “However, I am hopeful that the most recent air and soil samples will give us the answers we need to remedy the problem,” said de Blasio. “If not, the source of contamination needs to be determined and a plan immediately set in motion to clean up and prevent the further spread of hazardous material,” he added. De Blasio is also calling for an investigation into whether there is a relationship between the contamination and the recent health problems that several employees who were known to work at the [Verizon] site have been experiencing. “I am organizing a town hall meeting so anyone with questions and concerns will have the opportunity to get the answers they deserve,” said de Blasio. At press time, the town hall meeting time and place had yet to be determined. For more information, call de Blasio’s office at 854-9791.

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