International Disarmament Institute News

Former Wolff-Alport Chemical Corp. Superfund Site

1125 to 1139 Irving Avenue and 1514 Cooper Avenue, Ridgewood, Queens, New York 11385

This profile is part of a series on sites formerly associated with US nuclear weapons development and production in New York City. For an overview of all the sites, click here.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Wolff-Alport Chemical Corp. (no longer in business) began importing “rare earth containing monazite, rich in thorium, from the Belgian Congo” from about 1940, to sell for commercial purposes. Between 1948 and 1954, the company sold thorium oxalate sludge to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).  A 2011 NIOSH report states that “Inventory records indicate that each year from 1948 to 1951 a minimum of 3,400 kilograms of thorium oxalate sludge were transferred to AEC.” The same report warns that at the site of their warehouse, on the border between Queens and Brooklyn, “there is a potential for significant residual contamination.”

In 2009, the New York City Department of Design and Construction, funded by the EPA, conducted a radiation survey at the site, finding, “deep soil contamination under the site down to at least 20 feet; contamination of a sewage line, surrounding soil and manholes; presence of thoron and radon gas; and indications of off-site spread of radioactive materials.”

In 2012, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) conducted a “Health Consultation”, concluded that “that as a result of the radiological contamination at the site, workers at the auto body shop and pedestrians who frequently use the sidewalks at this location on Irving Avenue may have an elevated risk of cancer from exposure to ionizing radiation and their exposures may exceed the ATSDR Minimum Risks Levels (MRL) of 100 mrem/yr. It also concluded that it is unlikely that utility workers will exceed the MRL; however there are sufficient uncertainties in the measurements to suggest that there may be instances where the MRL could be exceeded.”

The site has received significant press coverage in New York City. For example, in 2014, The New Yorker created an interactive timeline and map of the site, as well as a web video (below).

In 2012, Politico reported that a New York City health physicist and radiation expert reassured the community that “I think it’s very safe to say that nobody’s going to get radiation sickness from Wolff Alport. There’s just not enough radiation there for that to happen, so there’s no short-term risk.” Similarly, the current owner of the property, now an auto shop, told the Wastelands project that government officials “tell me we’ve got a little (contamination) all over…. But they tell me it’s OK.”

Nevertheless, in a 2013 Wall Street Journal article, Emshwiller and Singer-Vine reported that the EPA was conducting limited, short-term remediation activities, including having “cleared weeds, removed two abandoned boats, erected a new fence, laid fresh gravel and dirt, and put down a cement strip as a radiation shield on a particularly hot spot.”  Speaking to The New Yorker in 2014, then EPA Regional Administrator Judith Erick said, “I think what’s important here is this is right in the heart of the community, where people live and work every day.” According to the EPA, these initial remediation activities “successfully reduced radiation exposure to the on-site workers and pedestrians along Irving Avenue to within acceptable annual limitations.” Its “2013 Multi-Agency Former Wolff-Alport Chemical Company Neighborhood Radiological Assessment concluded that there was no off-site exposure to the surrounding community from the site contamination.”

The EPA has since declared the location a Superfund site, one of only three in New York City. Following consultations with the community, in 2017 released its response plan. The “selected remedy“, at the cost of $39.9 million, is “Permanent relocation of current on-Site commercial and residential tenants, demolition of all contaminated buildings at the Site, excavation of soils beneath those buildings, as necessary, cleaning and/or replacing contaminated sewers, excavation, and off-site disposal of contaminated soil, debris, and sewer sediment.” You can check on the progress of the project at the EPA’s website, here.

Key documents:

  • 1987 Department of Energy survey. Download.
  • 2011 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report (see page 230). Download.
  • 2017 EPA “Record of Decision” for the Superfund site. Download.

For more information, read the EPA’s webpage for the site. See also the dedicated Wastelands page for Wolff-Alport and Co.   The Department of Energy’s dedicated page for the site includes scans of relevant historical documents.

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By Matthew Bolton, 2019.

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