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Elevated mercury levels at 250 Water St. construction site worry parents, teachers

BY DASHIELL ALLEN | Parents and teachers from the Seaport community are concerned that noise polution and elevated levels of mercury at 250 Water St. pose a threat to themselves and their children.

Foundation and remediation work began earlier this year at the site soon to be developed by the Howard Hughes Corporation — just in time to install piles in the ground, which qualifies the developer for a 421-A tax abatement before the program expires on June 15.

The Seaport development site, formerly home to the country’s largest thermometer factory, is abutted by the public Peck Slip School and private Blue School. Parents began to raise the alarm more than two years ago about what they called the potential risk to their children posed by the project if toxic chemicals present in the ground, such as mercury, weren’t properly remediated.

Together, they formed Children First, an advocacy group that contributed to the founding of an interagency 250 Water St. task force, as well as the acquiring of an independent monitor. Environmental cleanup began at the brownfield site in April.

Through the month of May, community members began to notice air monitors picking up elevated levels of mercury vapor that at times appeared to exceed the site’s permitted “action levels.” On May 11, the 15-minute average mercury level rose to 0.9 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3), just below the acceptable 1 microgram threshold.

From left, Grace Lee, Councilmember Christopher Marte and Emily Hellstrom at the protest. (Photo by Dashiell Allen)

While not technically exceeding allowable levels, the elevated reading was enough to cause the concern of parents and elected officials.

“This is something that needs to be looked at hard before you move over to the mercury hotspot area,” which contains significantly higher levels, said Lawra Dodge, an independent community monitor for the site, during a recent Community Board 1 call. “And you need to have a very good understanding of what that data means.”

At a rally before school started on Thurs., May 26, parents and teachers were joined by local politicians, who decried what they described as the negligence of the Howard Hughes Corporation and the city Department of Environmental Protection and state Department of Environmental Conservation for potentially exposing hundreds of children to mercury poisoning and noise pollution.

In fact, according to raw data released from that Thursday, mercury levels momentarily spiked at 2.4 µg/m3  at 8:19 a.m., just minutes before the 8:30 a.m. rally.

And on May 16, one air monitoring station read at 1.3 µg/m3 for more than 13 minutes. A D.E.C. spokesperson later clarified that this reading was deemed inaccurate by a hand-held analyzer.

“We have spent months in community board meetings, in stakeholder meetings, with Howard Hughes…coming up with a plan to keep our children safe when this remediation is happening,” said Grace Lee, a co-founder of Children First and candidate for state Assembly, whose children attend the Blue School. “What do they do in the first week of work? They violated all the safety protocols that we agreed to be put in place to help protect our children.

“We saw dust being tracked out of the site, we saw contaminated dirt being piled up against the fences with no protections to keep it within the confines of the lot,” she added. “We saw water tanks being uncovered, we saw trucks leaving the site uncovered, we were promised a 24/7 emergency hotline that wasn’t ever created.”

A view inside the construction site. (Photo by Dashiell Allen)

“We know from the independent community monitor and the daily reports from this site that the levels of mercury are much higher than was anticipated,” said Meghan Malvern, a co-founder of Children First. “In fact, the area where H.H.C. insisted they be allowed to start work before the end of the school year was handpicked because prior testing led environmental experts to believe it wouldn’t kick up much mercury vapor at all. All the experts got it wrong.”

A Howard Hughes Corporation spokesperson maintained that mercury levels based on air monitoring data have been “consistent” with expectations.

“The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is overseeing a robust brownfield cleanup that is fully protective of public health and the environment and guided by rigorous cleanup standards developed by D.E.C. and the New York State Department of Health,” an agency spokesperson said in a statement.

“Frequent inspections and stringent protective measures are in place to ensure air quality and other potential concerns are closely monitored to prevent any potential impacts to the surrounding community while work is underway.”

A spokesperson also pointed out that, out of an “abundance of caution,” the action level at 250 Water St. had been lowered from the standard used at other sites.

State Senator Brian Kavanagh said things at the construction site could well get even worse without proper mitigation. (Photo by Dashiell Allen)

But it’s not just mercury that is worrying the project’s opponents. Parents also said that noise from the construction is causing school to become nearly “unbearable.”

Colleen Robertson, a substitute teacher at the Blue School and a Peck Slip parent, said her children have noticed the construction.

“They told me the ground shook and their teachers reported that read-alouds became impossible,” she said. “Kids were scared. The fact that kids cannot focus because of the noise breaks my heart, both as an educator and a mother. Our kids deserve better.”

A video shared with The Village Sun demonstrated the noise pollution caused by the pile driving. In fact, midway through Thursday’s rally the crowd of several dozen protesters was startled by a sudden banging noise coming from the construction site — almost as if a small bomb had gone off.

In a letter sent to H.H.C. and D.E.P. on Wed., May 25, Councilmember Christopher Marte, Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, Congressmember Jerry Nadler, state Senator Brian Kavanagh, and Borough President Mark Levine requested noise mitigation measures be taken, similar to those put in place during the construction in 2005 of a tower at 270 Greenwhich St., next to P.S. 234 in Tribeca.

During that time, the developer, Edward Minskoff Equities, was required to “create sound barriers and use alternative construction techniques to mitigate pile-driving noise.”

A Howard Hughes Corporation spokeperson said in a statement, “We continue to implement appropriate noise-mitigation measures at the site, which NYC D.E.P. has inspected and found compliant with all relevant rules and regulations.

“And work is being conducted in accordance with the approved Remedial Action Work Plan that state D.E.C. and [the Department of Health] deem protective of public health and the environment.”

The spokeperson added, “The 250 Water St. project will bring deeply affordable housing to one of the city’s wealthiest areas, critical funding for the South Street Seaport Museum, nearly $1 billion in investment and hundreds of new jobs as the area works to rebound from the pandemic.”

Former Comptroller Scott Stringer, who at the time was said to be contemplating a run for state Senate, spoke at the May 26 rally. (Photo by Dashiell Allen)

As for noise mitigation measures, he said Howard Hughes has complied with D.E.P. noise-code limits and has not been cited for code violations. A fence meant to block and absorb sound was also erected.

“While every project’s location, design and construction methods are unique,” he added, “we intend to further evaluate potential measures to reduce construction noise, including those that were used for the development across from PS 234.”

D.E.P. told The Village Sun in a statement, “The city’s Noise Code attempts to balance the important work of rebuilding New York City with quality-of-life concerns of residents and businesses, and D.E.P. enforcement staff have responded to several reports of excessive noise at 250 Water St., and all noise readings taken to date have been in compliance with the law. To be able to take continuous sound readings (24/7), D.E.P. has been attempting to get permission to install a remote sound-recording device on a nearby building, but no residents have agreed to host the recording device as of yet.”

“The past three weeks have been horrendous and unacceptable,” said Marte, who told the rally that his office has been flooded by complaints from parents and neighbors.

“We were getting e-mails, calls from parents saying, ‘How can I transfer my child out of this school?’” he said.

“We have longtime residents considering moving out from long-term homes they’ve lived in for decades,” added Theodore Perez, a staff  member for Assemblymember Niou. “Students and teachers talking to us about unbearable noise and vibration throughout the school day.”

“We know that the next rounds of work are going to be even more noisy and potentially even more disruptive without proper mitigation,” state Senator Brian Kavanagh said.

The community’s other demand is that a tent be placed over the construction site during remediation and foundation work to help contain the toxins. The elected officials also signed onto a letter detailing that request.

The Howard Hughes spokesperson countered that covering the site during construction would be impractical, and claimed it would provide little if any public health benefit.

“Tenting” the site was also brought up at the rally by former Comptroller Scott Stringer, a Financial District resident whose children previously attended Peck Slip School.

“Albany is broken,” he said. “They can pass a budget with a stadium subsidy for Buffalo of $800 million, but they can’t demand that this gets tented. There’s something wrong in this town when that is allowed to happen.”

There had been murmurings that Stringer was contemplating a run for state Senate in District 47, stretching from just below 14th Street to 100th Street on the West Side, the same district Brad Hoylman is running for re-election in. But this week Stringer called Hoylman to let him know that he had decided not to run before tweeting that he was not a candidate.

Stringer scoffed at the cost of mitigation measures.

“I was comptroller, I know the numbers, it’s nothing,” he said. “It’s a decimal rounding.”

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