2003-06-27 / Community

Report on Superfund Sites Raises Health Issues

By Mara Lander
Report on Superfund Sites Raises Health Issues By Mara Lander

The former LILCO site on Beach Channel Drive was once a coal gasification plant that left toxins in the soil. A designated superfund site, it will soon be cleaned up.The former LILCO site on Beach Channel Drive was once a coal gasification plant that left toxins in the soil. A designated superfund site, it will soon be cleaned up.

The Public Advocate is calling for refinancing of the Superfund, linking the toxic waste sites in Rockaway to increased health concerns, but several top health officials disagree.

Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum released a report seeking to link residents living near Superfund sites with increased health risks. The report claims that city health department data suggests a relationship between higher rates of respiratory illness, and proximity to dangerous sites not yet attended to and deemed safe under the Superfund program. In fact, Gotbaum’s report states that the rate of hospitalization for Asthma and respiratory complications among Rockaway residents is considerably higher than the city average. She proposes that the hazardous waste sites may be to blame for the staggering statistics.

When presented with this argument, Dr. Peter Galvin, Chief Medical Officer at Peninsula Hospital stated that pediatric asthma was indeed a major health concern in Rockaway, but to his knowledge was not substantially affected by the Superfund sites in the area.

Community Board 14 President Jonathan Gaska expressed similar sentiment regarding the relationship between the two Superfund sites in Rockaway and the respiratory health concerns unique to the area. "Rockaway, particularly the Edgemere and Arverne areas, has a very high rate of asthma and there may be a correlation or it could be coincidence."

Negligence when disposing of hazardous waste was commonplace before 1980, when the harmful effect of irresponsible waste removal was unknown. Congress established the Superfund program in 1980 to locate, investigate, and clean up the worst hazardous waste sites nationwide.

Among the locations identified as hazardous were two sites in the Rock­aways: the Edgemere landfill on Beach Channel Drive and Beach 49th Street, and LILCO on Beach Channel Drive and 108th Street. An excess of toxic waste was illegally disposed of in the Edgemere landfill rendering it hazardous to residents in the area. Comparably by-products, including benzene, cyanide, tar, and toluene, from coal gasification are to blame for the dangerous state of the LILCO site.

Matt Burns, spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Con­ser­vation confirmed that the Edge­mere landfill is still considered an active site but has been cleaned of all toxins, capped, and closed. The site undergoes regular operational maintenance and is by no means being ignored. Concerns over the LILCO site are being addressed as well. A public meeting is scheduled for February, at which community opinion about the site will be discussed. A report from this meeting can be expected in July or August. A feasibility study to determine means by which to clean the site will be conducted in July as well. Results from the study and the public meeting will determine a remedial plan expected to be completed by the end of the year, at which time cleaning efforts will ensue.

Late last year, Keyspan energy expert Todd Lessing called the LILCO site "a giant toxic washing machine, sloshing back and forth under the ground." He also added, "There is no data that suggests that the public is being exposed to chemicals in any way."

In addition Joe Roma, spokesperson for the Department of Health said, "We understand residents being concerned about living near superfund sites, but we remind people that just because they are living near the sites does not mean they are being exposed to the contaminants. There is no conclusive correlation between proximity and ad­verse health conditions."

In essence local officials have sought to calm the fears associated with our proximity to the sites. It is of crucial importance to remember that sharing our neighborhood with these sites does not expose us directly. A huge level of exposure would call for concern but Rockaway residents are in no position to come in such close contact with the hazardous waste.

Funds allocated by federal and state governments for waste remov­al at these sites have been exhausted and clean up efforts have reached a standstill. The two locations in Rockaway are among the sites that have not yet been properly cleaned and deemed safe. Since the original source of funding ran out in April 2001 Governor George Pataki and state legislature have disagreed upon means in which to refinance the program. Governor Pataki dev­elop­ed a plan in 1999 for refinancing. His proposal has been highly criticized for its lax attitude toward the strict standards for cleanup and liability set up in the original program.

A bill introduced by Assemblyman Thomas P. DiNapoli proposes a refunding plan that promises to have all state Superfund sites clean­ed within the next ten years. The bill proposes that $200 million a year in bonds be allotted to finance the cleanup program. Negotiations between the two parties are being made to reach an agreement regarding a sensible means of refunding. The need to immediately refinance the Superfund program and resume the clean up effort is further exaggerated by the proposed health risks introduced in a recent report issued by the Office of the Public Advocate for the City of New York.

While refinancing the program is certainly a priority, expert opinion suggests that health concerns unique to the Rockaways cannot con­clusively be blamed on the active superfund sites in the area.

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