Parents, kids protest development at site of old thermometer factory over mercury fears

Parents, kids protest development at site of old thermometer factory over mercury fears

Source: https://nypost.com, May 18, 2019
By: Melissa Klein

Lower Manhattan moms are feverishly fighting the Howard Hughes Corp. over its plans to dig up and develop the site of a former thermometer factory — possibly exposing school kids across the street to long-buried mercury.

They’re worried that work at the 400-space parking lot on Water Street near the South Street Seaport could release poisons into the air around city Peck Slip School and the private Blue School.

“This is the mother lode of mercury in here,” said area resident and activist Elaine Kennedy, who joined a protest in front of the Howard Hughes offices at the Seaport Thursday.

Children and parents marched from the two schools chanting “Children before profit! No more greed!”

“We are not going to surrender the health of our children,” city Comptroller Scott Stringer, whose son attended Peck Slip School, also known as PS 343, told the crowd.

The Howard Hughes Corp. plunked down $180 million for the parking lot last year, but insists it doesn’t know what it will build there. It has not submitted any development plans to the city.

The corporation has spent almost $600 million redeveloping the nearby Seaport.

Parents charge the corporation is being cagey about its plans and has downplayed the dangers lurking beneath the blacktop.

“I don’t believe for a second that they don’t have a very clear picture of what it is they want to do here,” said Matt Cowan, who has two children at Peck Slip School.

Megan Malvern, co-president of the school PTA, said a Howard Hughes executive acknowledged in a meeting with school officials last year that it wanted to erect a 60- to 70-story skyscraper.

In its application for the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s brownfield cleanup program, the corporation said the project is likely “a mixed-use residential and commercial development and may include affordable housing.”

The application notes that in addition to the thermometer maker, an oil company; printer; metal works firm; chemical and glue company; a garage with 550-gallon underground storage tanks, and a gas station once occupied the plot.

Howard Hughes’ engineering report found mercury in soil tests and evidence of petroleum, but residents say it did not adequately assess the type, location and risk of the chemicals found.

A suspicious mom did her own research in the city archives and plotted the exact site of the thermometer factory buildings located there from the mid-1800s to early 1900s, Malvern said.

“They’ve never sampled in any of the spots where historically there’s known to be a thermometer factory,” Malvern said. “Never.”

Malvern said while the engineering report did not offer information on the type of mercury at the site, the company’s engineering consultant told her it was assumed to be dangerous elemental mercury.

Elemental mercury is the silvery substance found in thermometers that when vaporized can cause lung damage, and, over time, memory problems and neurological issues, according to the CDC.

“It’s not an easy cleanup,” said Jack Caravanos, a professor of environmental public health sciences at NYU. “What we need is a thorough environmental assessment so we know where the hot spots are.”

The DEC said it was evaluating more than 200 public comments before deciding whether to include the cleanup in the brownfield program, which would give tax credits to Howard Hughes Corp. for remediating the site.

Residents don’t want any approvals before Howard Hughes comes clean with its intentions. They also want the company to stick to the zoning at the site, which only allows 12 stories.

The company told The Post that it would “engage the community” in planning for the site and it would “ensure that an expert team is in place to implement a safe and comprehensive environmental remediation.”

The DEC said it requires developers to submit detailed plans to make sure that the surrounding community is not exposed to contamination during the cleanup.

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