New York City

Southpoint Toxic Waste: Is RIOC Hiding A 600 Pound Gorilla?

Is Southpoint Park toxic waste the invisible gorilla in the room in the redesign? It seems to have slipped everyone’s notice, and that’s the point.

By David Stone

UPDATE: JULY 20TH, 2020

A video surfaced of a RIOC board committee considering the Southpoint Park Project. Knowing that these are normally the only real reviews the board does, it’s critical because the full board simply nods its okay.

Most appalling, as you will see in the video, is assistant vice-president Jonna Carmona-Graf explaining that they deliberately worked at avoiding state oversight. An earlier membrane installation went untested, and no one knows if it stopped leaching around the park.

RIOC clearly does not want the state Department of Environmental Conservation looking at it.

Carmona-Graf makes that clear while the sleepy board of enablers directors and president/CEO Susan Rosenthal look on. And not one of them raises an eyebrow.

No one knows where membrane’s borders end or whether visitors walked, ran and crawled through toxins since 2012. Testing in 2014 covered only the shorelines, and although toxins appeared, their source is unknown.

More importantly, RIOC prefers that no one check.

Southpoint Park Project RIOC Committee Video

Listen closely as the sound is not very clear while an assistant vice-president openly tells an indifferent board that an effort to avoid DEC scrutiny controls parts of the plan. There’s more disturbing activity in the video baring on how awful the plan is.

End of Update

“The goal of the Roosevelt Island Southpoint Park project is to repair the erosion of the east and west seawalls and is critical to ensure the health and safety of the public while visiting Southpoint Park.”

So begins the Roosevelt Island Operating Corp.”s (RIOC) defense of its redesign of Southpoint Park. And that may be true, but the contested design goes much farther.

A challenge to the plan gathered well over 5,000 signatures online, and protestors marched against it over the weekend.

But we’re going to leave the argument about environmental impact for now and focus on another feature.

“The required work involves the removal of toxic soil that has been inundated with overgrown landfills… that must be removed before the seawall can be repaired,” RIOC says.

Why aren’t we hearing more about that? Should we?

And where’s our elected firewall? Rebecca Seawright, who stoutly promised to hold RIOC accountable? Vanished. Similarly, Ben Kallos, José Serrano, Gale Brewer and Governor Cuomo are nowhere to be found.

Southpoint Park Toxic Waste

RIOC upgrades Southpoint Park, starting with the shoreline damaged by Super Storm Sandy.
Borings in 2013 found toxic waste in the area beyond this easily scaled fence, but the story starts earlier. And we have the question of why there are traffic cones but no warning signs.

Justifying the work, the state declared, “The RIOC Board of Directors unanimously approved the plan earlier this year.”

Yes, that’s the legal requirement, but we wanted some background. So, we asked a team of experts to find out if there’s anything easier to get than unanimous approval from RIOC’s board.

A deep dive into research revealed only a single easier event: falling off a log.

“This,” the leader of our research team said, “is like saying a tree unanimously approves of leaves.”

The invisible gorilla’s been around longer than you think…

Southpoint Park opened in 2011, following six years after a master plan by The Trust for Public Land. Part of that delay came from discovery of toxic wastes.

A year or so earlier, Michael Moreo, RIOC’s IT director, showed me around the site under construction. The weather was cloudy and cool, and the unfinished park was not at its best, but Moreo was proud.

After crews began removing heaps of concrete and other garbage piled thirty feet in the air, toxic waste halted the work.

Roosevelt Island‘s long history of industry, institutions and healthcare exposed itself.

But they found a clever solution. Rather than digging deep and wide, searching for wastes, management devised a solution.

An impermeable membrane now tops the contamination. It builds a layer protecting the public, strengthened by two feet of top soil.

Stones smartly salvaged from the burned out City Hospital made a ring wall along the edge of the membrane. It looked great, and it was functional.

But did this Southpoint Park toxic waste solution go far enough?

What Did They Know and When Did They Know It?

Marches pass the wall built to contain toxic waste in Southpoint Park.
The wall built from City Hospital salvage marks the edge of the protective membrane as protestors march on July 11th. But toxic waste was found along the shoreline on the left, and the boundary inland is not well-known.

For the first time as far as we know, in 2013, test borings sunk into areas closer to the shoreline, although these had always offered easy public access.

The question of whether such testing took place before the park opened is unknown, and it’s as troubling as why the 2013 findings sat there like dead fish in RIOC’s offices.

Toxic waste, clearly noted by RIOC in its statement about the Southpoint Park’s plan, exists, but until this day, nothing happened. No warning signs, just traffic cones where potholes destabilized the area.

Southpoint Park entrance
A sign greets Southpoint Park visitors, and it lists dos and mostly don’ts. But nowhere is anyone alerted about toxic waste, just feet away.

Questions about Southpoint Park toxic waste but not many answers…

RIOC knows there’s toxic waste underground in Southpoint Park, and confirms it in two places. A membrane restricts contamination in the hill and adjoining space. The shoreline behind the fences, including the cat sanctuary, is also contaminated.

Why wasn’t the public informed after 2013? And what took so long to act?

You can forget for now that remediation only reached planning when repairing the shoreline from storm damage came up. But should work on the park take place when nobody’s sure where the toxic waste is coming from?

Is it old or is it still leaching from the center of the park beneath the membrane?

Where’s the boundary? The park’s center is apparently safe, but how far does the prophylactic extend?

Is the common walkway over the membrane of not?

Should this work continue without answers?

And if RIOC actually has answers, why haven’t they been shared?

Conclusion:

Part of the story of what happened with Southpoint Park and its toxic wastes is reflected in Michael Moreo’s story.

Although a respected member of the state team whose influence extended far beyond Roosevelt Island, Moreo was forced out in a power struggle with now disgraced PSD chief Keith Guerra.

RIOC’s opaque policies, including a non-disclosure agreement signed by Moreo, prevents him from telling his story, but we confirmed it through other sources.

Years of mismanagement by unqualified executives appointed by Governors Cuomo, Pataki and Spitzer resulted in a vast talent erosion. Board members and key staff suddenly depart, and they take all their history and knowledge with them.

Today though, RIOC, backed by assembly member Rebecca Seawright, senator José Serrano and an ever compliant board, is full steam ahead.

And don’t be fooled by the two week delay. That’s all about giving acting president/CEO Shelton Haynes a chance to do what his predecessor failed to do.

That is, explain the project to a skeptical public that had too little choice and never enough information.

Finally, as this project went forward without answering serious questions about Southpoint Park toxic waste, will it come back to haunt us like a legion of valuable but cast off RIOC veterans?

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