Response: April 2016 Issue

Toxins From A to Z

An Assembly 2014 Grant supports Environmental Activism in Staten Island

Toxins From A to Z
Beryl Thurman, director of North Shore Waterfront Conservancy of Staten Island, stands along the north shore of Staten Island, New York.

Beryl Thurman noticed the off-duty city bus barreling ahead, just as the crossing guard was slowing traffic to wave the children across the street. The bus was traversing an illegal route, a side street, unfazed by the local school along the North Shore of Staten Island in New York City.

"This is what I'm talking about," Ms. Thurman said, shaking her head, pointing out the speeding bus. Ms. Thurman is a passionate and tireless advocate for neighbors like the schoolchildren crossing the street and executive director of the North Shore Waterfront Conservancy of Staten Island.

"I bet it's going to the depot. Let's follow it." Indeed, from a safe distance, we trailed the bus and arrived at one of four nearby bus depots.

The renegade buses and dozens of idling vehicles at the depots send noxious fumes into the neighborhood, mingling with the stench from the nearby water treatment facility. But, sadly, the poor air quality is just one of many environmental infractions endured by this neighborhood besieged by troubles. There are toxins from A to Z — from asbestos to zinc — polluting the shoreline in what was once home to Native American and oystering communities.

The most egregious disaster in recent memory along the 5.2-mile shoreline on the North Shore was Hurricane Sandy, which gave rise to environmental ghosts in the form of plumes from long-buried industrial waste. The natural disaster ignited grassroots advocates like Ms. Thurman to form a coalition of neighbors. United Methodist Women has partnered with the North Shore Waterfront Conservancy by financially supporting the coalition, one of the local environmental organizations to receive funding from United Methodist Women's 2014 Assembly grant.

Ms. Thurman warned of the impending environmental disaster after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, but she was not believed. She had begged her legislators to research and fund protections for the Staten Island shoreline neighborhood should such a natural disaster strike. But no one took notice. Until Sandy hit.

"Everything that happened was preventable," said Ms. Thurman. Twenty-four Staten Island residents were killed by the hurricane.

Disproportionate suffering

Across from the Caddell Dry Dock in West Brighton, the first floors of the affordable homes were under water. The residents never saw the floodwaters coming because of the extensive fencing between their housing and the river.

Of primary concern at present are 21 locations contaminated by toxins by previous or current industries along the North Shore, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Many of these abandoned and toxic sites are within 70 feet of homes. There are 75,000 residents living near the waterfront of the North Shore on an island of 473,000. The poverty rate on the North Shore is 58 percent higher than the rest of Staten Island.

The toxic dumping is a blatant disregard for a struggling community. This disregard, many believe, would never have happened on the South Shore, the wealthier and whiter area of Staten Island. In addition to several East Indian, Middle Eastern and Chinese neighbors, Ms. Thurman estimates one-third of her neighbors are African American, one-third Caucasian and one-third Hispanic. The American Lung Association ranks Staten Island's smog the worst of the five boroughs of New York, and the New York State Department of Health reports the death rate from lung cancer to be 48 percent higher for Staten Island than for the rest of New York City.

"We are literally a lit cigarette away from being blown to smithereens," Ms. Thurman said as we drove past buried gas and jet fuel lines that run under the marshland and under the Kill Van Kull. During and after Hurricane Sandy, oil and gas spilled into the narrow Arthur Kill and the Kill Van Kull.

Ms. Thurman remains worried about the quality of water and air. "No piece of property is an island unto itself," Ms. Thurman said.

The past and present Staten Island industries and their levels of toxicity vary. One current industry is Atlantic Salt Co., nestled on the shore, a dirty hill of tarp-covered road salt, which contains ferric ferrocyanide, an anti-caking agent that is on the list of the Clean Water Act's toxic pollutants. However, because the road salt is deemed beneficial, the toxin remains. The community of New Brighton is not able to see the Kill Van Kull over the mound of salt. And after salting the roads, the city trucks leave a pervasive and fine dust of salt that covers everything.

Another present-day industry that has the potential for spewing contaminants, such as polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) and mercury, is Con Edison, which, like predecessor electrical companies on the North Shore since 1882, is perched precariously along an eroding waterfront.

Other industries along the North Shore have long since shuttered their operations, but the skeletons of their factories remain, as do their residual toxins dumped in the ground or water.

Staten Island's North Shore had been home to paint companies like John Jewett & Sons White Lead Company which produced lead for paint and plaster companies like J.B. King plaster company (bought by U.S. Gypsum and now the site of Atlantic Salt Company), which produced asbestos. The Bethlehem Steel Factory is an abandoned hulk along the North Shore, used occasionally by a neighborhood mosque.

Perhaps the most alarming historic neighbor along the North Shore was the Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) food processing company, which stored about 1,200 tons of uranium for the Manhattan Project from 1939 to 1942. This material was used to build the atomic bomb. Although federal and state governments have found higher levels of radioactivity on the site, cleanup has, over the years, been stalled or denied as corporations or federal and state agencies argue over culpability.

A stone's throw from the potentially radioactive Manhattan Project site is the ongoing construction of the Bayonne Bridge. Round-the-clock construction, with sky-high cranes, was scheduled for completion this year, but the bridge is now estimated to take another two years to complete.

Building a coalition

The community members have trouble holding corporations' feet to the fire.

"You can promise anything," Ms. Thurman said. But then the industries and companies claim that budgets and timelines are constrained. "All these things they tell us they're going to do, they can't do."

The health hazards of living and breathing in a construction zone include residents on Innis Street, under the bridge, who have reported that children come inside after playing outdoors with bloody noses and respiratory troubles. One neighbor reported that her child had lungs like a 65-year-old lifetime smoker. The air is full of dust and contaminated soil. Debris, including lead paint chips, has fallen from the old bridge. An environmental assessment done by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey found PCBs, asbestos, lead and arsenic on the Bayonne Bridge property.

Often residents don't see the big picture of the increased health risks from environmental toxins.

"It used to be doctors made house calls and they could see the patterns in a neighborhood, but there are no facilitators to make the connections anymore," Ms. Thurman said.

Massive cranes and construction vehicles have clogged residential streets, narrowing safe passage and infringing driveways. Some residents have received checks for $10,000 for the inconvenience, but others abutting them have received no recompense. The majority have not deposited their checks.

Ms. Thurman believes justice for the neighbors includes compensating residents fairly, cleaning up industrial waste, preventing further erosion and creating nontoxic shorelines. It is not unreason-able to expect corporations to respect neighbors in and around their construc-tion zones, toxic sites and bus depots. >Board member and treasurer of the North Shore Waterfront Conservancy Warren MacKenzie called the environmental injustice on Staten Island's North Shore "the onion with so many layers. It's like the opposite of NIMBY (not in my back yard) — it's all in our backyard!"

Ms. Thurman has inspired residents of her community like Mr. MacKenzie to get active in advocating for the quality of life along the North Shore. For her part, she was inspired to this environmental justice work by two unlikely bedfellows: Martha Stewart and Jesse Jackson. Mr. Jackson in his bid for president in the 1980s called on young people of low-income communities to not leave their communities but to stay and work for improvements. And Martha Stewart sought to make her home beautiful, just as Ms. Thurman has sought to do. Though Ms. Thurman laughs and acknowledges that Ms. Stewart has more help, off-camera, than meets the eye.

She sees the potential for positive change.

"We are becoming aware we no longer live in a throw-away society."

But the hurdles are steep, as seen in the dangerous and illegal bus route.

"After 18 years of complaining about this issue of the MTA [Metropolitan Transit Authority] allowing their drivers to be off route driving around in the communities with no responsibility to those communities or their safety, my following the bus to the depot to report it being off-route is just redundant. Imagine years of bringing up issues to the people who you voted for and who are responsible to do problem-solving in order to protect the vulnerable people and communities in their district and all you get is nothing — occasionally spin, but ultimately nothing of substance. This is all about exploitation, and if they cannot do that we are of no use to them and they will make every attempt to destroy us," Ms. Thurman wrote in an e-mail.

When Ms. Thurman politely reported the errant bus to the MTA dispatcher at the depot, the employee listened sympathetically and agreed that the driver was off route by taking shortcuts through school zones. It remained unclear what the dispatcher or the MTA would do to correct the injustice.

United Methodist Women's Assembly grant to the conservancy will help build a coalition of North Shore neighbors to raise awareness of environmental injustice. After community members are aware of the challenges, they can take action to build a safer and more livable environment. The goal is simply: "We want to clean up the waterfront so people aren't poisoned anymore."

Mary Beth Coudal is interim managing editor of response.

Posted or updated: 4/4/2016 11:00:00 PM