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City finds thorium at Ridgewood building

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A city agency announced that it found radioactive material in and around a Ridgewood building, and will continue to test the site. Area officials said that the material was left over from the World War II-era nuclear experiment known as the Manhattan Project.

Gary Giordano, district manager for Community Board 5, relayed the announcement at a meeting Dec. 15, but said the material is not dangerous.

“It was a site for the Manhattan Project in the ’40s, and there is radioactive pollution at the site,” he said. “From what we can tell, what is on the site is not a significant risk to workers that are there or in the surrounding community.”

A statement released by the city Department of Health also said that the material was not harmful.

“There were no immediate health concerns to members of the public, including workers, residents and clients of the businesses on the site,” it said.

The Manhattan Project was the code name for a secret military project responsible for developing atomic weapons during the war, and according to another board member many locations around the five boroughs participated.

The Ridgewood building, which houses auto repair and iron working shops between the addresses of 11-27 and 11-29 Irving Ave., was entirely occupied by the Wolff-Alport Chemical Corp. during the war.

When America joined the allies, the company — along with many others in the industrial sector — was asked to help with the war effort, according to Vincent Arcuri Jr., chairman of the community board.

“It didn’t matter what kind of business it was. Every business was turned over to the war effort,” he said.

Arcuri pointed out that projects were handed out to sites all over the city, like the one given to Wolff-Alport.

“We were major participants in the Manhattan Project,” he said, adding that by farming out the projects to sites all over the city, the project’s secrets would be harder to steal.

The chemical company extracted minerals from a sandy substance called monazite in the 1940s and ’50s, according to a document released by the city. But along with the minerals, the company also extracted a radioactive element called thorium.

Workers got rid of the thorium by flushing it into the sewer system until the Atomic Energy Commission stopped the practice in 1947. Afterward, the atomic mineral was kept in solid form and sold to the government, the document said.

The building has been tested for radioactivity before, but in the ’70s the radiation levels did not exceed the legal limit. That limit was later lowered and in 2007 city and federal inspectors determined that the site needed to be more thoroughly tested.

The current test began in July 2009, when the city found abnormal levels of gamma radiation in the sewers outside of the building.

Next, the city Department of Health drilled holes in the street to test the soil and groundwater and finally tested the inside of the buildings.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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