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100 blocks by toxic NYC canal being tested for cancerous vapors — residents demand answers


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The state is quietly investigating roughly 100 blocks in and around Brooklyn’s toxic Gowanus Canal to determine how many are contaminated with cancer-causing vapors and other hazardous substances, The Post has learned.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation began its probe in September following public outcry over reports it waited nearly two years to alert the public that cancer-causing vapors nearly 22 times the amount considered safe escaped from polluted soil and into a popular shuffleboard club.

Records show recent air-quality tests inside the Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club on Union Street have since come back as “safe” once steps were taken to reduce harmful fumes by venting underground contaminants — but many other properties in the testing area, where thousands of people live and work, continue to show high traces of toxicity.

One building, which DEC refused to publicly identify, had air levels of the chemical trichloroethylene, or “TCE” — an industrial solvent linked to cancer, Parkinson’s disease and other ailments — 450 times above acceptable levels, according to tests taken last year.

Similar tests conducted in 2023 at 543 Union St., a massive 19th Century-era building occupied by 22 businesses, also found TCE fumes on site dozens of times, including one reading 255 times above “safe” levels.”

Many other neighborhood buildings are former manufacturing sites that saturated soil with toxic coal tar.

Over the past century, much of the coal tar – dubbed “black mayonnaise” by longtime residents — also seeped into the canal, which is one of the nation’s most polluted waterways and undergoing a massive federal Superfund cleanup.

DEC Interim Commissioner Sean Maher insisted his agency is committed to working with Gowanus-area property owners to get buildings tested and then “mitigate” any potential contaminants.

“We are all in on this community,” Maher told The Post. “We’re doing a lot of really important work and are really excited about the progress we are making.”

However, residents said they’re disgusted with the DEC’s and other government agencies’ lack of transparency — and terrified for their own health.

“This should be about cancer prevention and making sure people aren’t breathing in this stuff and getting sick,” fumed Seth Hillinger of the advocacy group Voice of Gowanus.

“[But] the state is doing just the opposite of what they should be doing to get the word out. There’s no signage anywhere — no warnings” telling the public a building tested toxic.

Many revelations only came to light thanks to Toxics Targeting, an Ithaca, N.Y.-based environmental database firm hired by Voice of Gowanus that discovered damning DEC documents buried on the agency’s website.

“DEC knew” by early 2023 “about the astoundingly high TCE contamination, [but] never mentioned the actual contaminant levels in multiple meetings, never posted a single warning sign,” said Walter Hang, who heads Toxics Targeting.

“This is shockingly irresponsible. Gov. [Kathy] Hochul must be held accountable for failing to safeguard public health in the Gowanus Canal community.”

However, the lack of information about the investigation could also be traced directly to property owners.

DEC targeted 626 properties to test during the ongoing first phase of its “soil vapor intrusion” study, yet so far only about 100 agreed to provide access, agency officials said.

DEC’s policy is to let property owners decide if testing is needed, even if the site is surrounded by known toxic land.

Hiillinger and other residents attribute the lack of cooperation to many property owners being worried that bad test results could cause their property values to plummet.

Property owners could also lose steady rental income as they’d be required by law to tell tenants if they’re living or working in a toxic building.

Joan Rodriguez, who owns a home on the corner of President and Bond streets, agreed to have part of her basement tested in November by a DEC contractor for harmful vapors.

Although her home was deemed safe, she still fears she’s in danger as more high-rise construction projects continue to be built along the canal.

Like some environmentalists and other residents, she’s concerned the new construction was hastily greenlighted by state and city officials desperate to relieve New York’s housing shortage — but without allowing for a full environmental cleanup.

These critics allege coal tar and other toxic substances could be shifting underground during construction to other properties through a waterway connecting to the canal.

“We live here because we want to live here — and made that choice before anyone told us these buildings were toxified,” said Rodriguez, 65.

DEC declined to address whether a large mixed-use development with housing going up next door to the shuffleboard club and other nearby construction projects are creating health issues for neighbors, and it declined to say how many of the 100 properties tested were found to have unsafe air.

David Dumbadze, who runs at architecture firm at 543 Union, said he’s not worried about his health because DEC and the US Environmental Protection Agency took steps to ensure the building’s air is now safe – and the most recent tests show it.

However, he is worried about the overall health of the neighborhood.

“We’re seeing a lot of development [on] a lot of soil that hasn’t been tampered with in over 100 years,” he said. “At least here, we are seeing remediation efforts.”