US: Deal Reached to Clean Toxic Bronx Site

Publisher Name: 
The New York Times

For more than 40 years, Hexagon Laboratories made pharmaceuticals on a quiet stretch of Peartree Avenue not far from Co-op City in the Bronx. When the company abandoned the site in 1989, it left behind thousands of gallons of toxic waste.

After years of community agitation and the discovery that the lot was littered with carcinogens, explosives and poisons like cyanide, the state attorney general's office announced last week that it had reached a settlement with companies involved in Hexagon's business or its chemical operations at the site: they will pay about two-thirds of the $9 million cleanup cost.

"Even urban toxic waste sites are usually less contaminated than this site, where numerous hazardous chemicals were spilled during chemical manufacturing processes," said Eugene J. Leff, an assistant attorney general with the Environmental Protection Bureau.

Unknown to its neighbors, Mr. Leff said, Hexagon failed to properly dispose of more than 600 drums and 27 tanks of potentially lethal chemicals after it declared bankruptcy in 1989. Some of the underground tanks deteriorated, allowing poisons to leach into the groundwater.

The authorities investigated the lot, in Eastchester, only after people in homes and businesses near the former pharmaceutical plant complained for months about acrid odors and dead birds, and about the chemicals that came up when they flushed their toilets. The state eventually certified that the site was a significant health risk requiring emergency cleanup.

"We said, 'We have a problem here,' but no one did anything," said the Rev. Richard F. Gorman, chairman of Community Board 12, who is among the residents who have pressed for more than two decades to get the site cleaned. "I doubt very much this would have been allowed to go on in Manhattan, but you are dealing with a community of color in an outer borough."

During the past 16 years, the New York City Police Department's bomb squad and state and federal toxic waste specialists have removed an array of perilous materials, including cyanide, benzene, compressed gas cylinders, explosives, mercury, asbestos and PCB's.

But concerns remain about the extent of the contamination and its potential to cause cancer in the neighborhood, which has streets with rows of auto body shops and other blocks with $400,000 houses. For years, a dairy operated across the street from the toxic lot.

"You will not know the true impact of that soil contamination for years to come," said Carmen Rosa, who lives near the site and is district manager of Community Board 12.

Also unclear is the extent to which chemicals have polluted an underground stream that feeds the Hutchinson River, which is about 1,000 feet from the Peartree Avenue lot. Officials said the contaminants have not reached the river.

When Attorney General Eliot Spitzer brought a lawsuit in 2001 against Boehringer Ingelheim, the German chemical corporation that used to own Hexagon Laboratories, he said, "The owners of this site showed no regard for those living nearby and have taken no responsibility for the problems they have created."

The $6.2 million settlement involves 31 chemical companies, but not Hexagon's last owner, Louis P. Wiener, who was not a party to the agreement because Hexagon left no assets.

Mr. Wiener and his lawyer, Richard F. Ricci, declined to comment.

Mr. Leff said the chemical companies were reluctant to pay anything, even though they were legally liable for the chemicals they had shipped to Hexagon to be processed. "The companies were determined to fight tooth and nail," he said.

The companies did not admit any liability in settling with the state.

The remaining cost of the $9 million cleanup bill will be paid from the state Superfund program.

The state plans to treat the groundwater by injecting a combination of hydrogen peroxide and iron salts into the lot's bedrock, a process that will turn the contaminants into less harmful compounds.

Concerns about chemical leaks at the lot have existed for decades. Hexagon was fined repeatedly for chemical spills and was ordered to install water-monitoring wells, although it is not clear if the company ever did so.

The cleanup at the site, which was eventually taken over by the city, did not begin until the early 1990's, first by the Police Department in 1990 and then by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 1992.

The State Department of Environmental Conservation placed the lot on the state Superfund site list as a threat to public health in 1993, but did not start its own cleanup until 1997. During the E.P.A. cleanup, three workers were hospitalized after being overcome by fumes. The last of the contaminated soil was removed last December.

The presence of toxic materials did not deter a group of homeless people and drug users from finding shelter in the abandoned buildings on the Hexagon site. To keep warm, they often lighted fires, causing neighbors to fear that whatever chemicals remained would ignite and send a toxic cloud to Co-op City.

The Fire Department developed an evacuation plan for Co-op City in the event of a chemical fire on the lot.

Even though the settlement and the removal of chemicals from the groundwater will close a chapter on the Hexagon site, neighbors say they deserve more from the chemical companies involved. "I think they owe this community an apology," Ms. Rosa said. "But for the grace of God, we've been fortunate no one has died or been injured."

AMP Section Name:Chemicals
  • 183 Environment