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Mercury levels at Fort Totten declared safe by Army engineers

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The meeting of the Fort Totten Coast Guard Station Restoration Advisory Board, held at the Bay Terrace Jewish Center, updated a handful of local residents on the results of a sampling study conducted last year on the uplands portion of the fort's grounds, north of the entrance off Cross Island Parkway.The exact origin of the mercury at Fort Totten is still unknown, but it was discovered at the Civil War-era fort by the Coast Guard in 1985. At the time, the Army and Coast Guard shared the active military base.The 2004 mercury sampling study focused on the upland area of the fort, drawing on two dozen soil samples, groundwater samples from a monitoring well, and indoor air samples from Building 615, a structure used in the 18th and 19th centuries for maintenance of torpedos and mines that contained the toxic metal element.The Army Corps removed in 1998 some old drains found inside Building 615 that used to flush the mercury waste into Little Bay, but agency Project Manager Helen Kim said it was determined that a recently discovered floor drain emptied into a vault underneath the parking lot."That drainpipe doesn't discharge into Little Bay," Kim said, and noted the Building 615 indoor air samples also showed mercury levels were found to be below the state's screening levels.However, soil in a "fill area" located north of the Totten ballfield was found to have "metals and semivolatile organic compounds concentrations exceeding state screening criteria," according the study overview. The Army Corps recommended that while the area may not be suitable for residential use, it was appropriate for non-residential purposes. Phil Konigsberg, president of the Bay Terrace Community Alliance, questioned whether the Totten ballfield, which was tested for pollutants in the early 1990s, needed to be tested again."Is it possible that the ballfield has some contaminants?" he asked."As far as I know, both areas (under review by the Army Corps) are pretty consolidated," making cross-contamination unlikely, said Robert LoPinto, chairman of the advisory board.In addition, the soil in a parcel just east of the bay above Willets Street was found to be safe for unrestricted use. No excessive levels of the semivolatile organic compounds were found in the groundwater samples, but the corps representatives recommended the groundwater not be used for drinking water due to Little Bay's high levels of salinity.The Army Corps' final report on Fort Totten's upland area is to be issued in August, with a feasibility study on all possible alternatives and then a proposed plan due before the end of the year. A record of the decision is anticipated by next March.In addition, Kim said future work includes a second round of fish and shellfish tissue sampling in 2006 to ensure that no marine life is registering higher levels of mercury. The Army Corps first conducted a series of fish and shellfish testing in 2003.The city has expressed interest in acquiring the former Coast Guard station site, according to Parks Department project manager Jennifer Kao who attended the meeting, but the area under study is not part of the recently opened public park in Fort Totten.Reach reporter Sophia Chang by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

Updated 7:15 pm, October 10, 2011
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