New York City

Something To Hide? RIOC Slow Walks Answers About Toxic Wastes

When it comes to toxic wastes, RIOC’s reluctant to admit that gorilla is in the room. But gorillas don’t go away so easy. Neither do facts.

By David Stone

Roosevelt Island News

RIOC’s Toxic Wastes Creep Up On Us

The first hint dribbled out at an infamous RIOC board committee meeting in October, 2019. That meeting was so awful, a comment by assistant vice-president Jonna Carmona-Graf came off as relatively trivial.

RIOC's Southpoint Park Design.
RIOC claimed the redesigned park would be more natural. With a straight face.

We don’t, she told RIOC’s sleepy, inert board, want to draw DEC’s attention to the plan for handling toxic wastes on the shorelines in Southpoint Park.

“Why?” didn’t enter the picture for a while.

In the meantime, we occupied ourselves with the awfulness of RIOC’s commitment to turning Southpoint into Brooklyn Bridge Park North.

Then, something unexpected happened.

And Then, RIOC Released a Five Year Old Map…

The map, created in 2014, disclosed in a Freedom of Information request by Frank Farance, showed both shorelines contaminated with industrial chemicals, pesticides and more.

From top to bottom. From the border with Four Freedoms Park to the Cornell Tech campus.

Farance shared a copy, and we talked about it at length.

The miserable, inescapable truth: RIOC and its favored partner, Langan, knew about public exposure to extensive toxic wastes for at least five years and did nothing.

No one was told, not even when RIOC invited residents to planning sessions for Southpoint’s future. And all during this time, some suffered daily, close contact exposure to the contamination.

But don’t get lost in the undisclosed details…

The thing is, those toxins came from somewhere, and it wasn’t the East River. Land based poisons ruin rivers, not the other way around.

RIOC toxic wastes incompletely addressed in shoreline work.
RIOC ripped out flora and fauna along the shorelines without any consideration for where the toxic wastes came from.

Had Carmona-Graf exposed RIOC’s dirty secret? Not that the state knows more than it lets on, but that it’s ignorant of the facts.

And is ignorance what’s being hidden? Or liability?

Long before any park was even an idea, the area where Southpoint sits was industrial and medical space, and that history stretches back over a hundred years, to times when little attention was paid to environmental degradation.

There’s not even a complete history of what was there, apart from ruins. Strecker Lab, the Smallpox Hospital and the stones, once part of City Hospital, now creating walls along park lanes suggest most of what we know.

Even without knowing enough about industry that shared the space or the sprawling prison once dominating the Island’s south end, we can guess at high volumes of chemical and human waste, uncontrolled for decades.

Although RIOC found plenty of toxic waste when they built the park, there’s no evidence that they dealt successfully with it.

Or even documented what they found and actions taken in response.

That’s where the ignorance — and raw negligence — comes in.

Stone walls built from City Hospital ruins line the walkways. Supposedly, they also contain the spread of toxins under a protective covering.

Try Getting RIOC Toxic Waste Information and You Get Walls Instead

When Shelton Haynes took over the helm at RIOC after Susan Rosenthal was ambushed in an intramural coup, he declared his intention to reform the state agency.

In good faith, he invited me for a one-on-one meeting in his office, just a month after taking over. Our conversation was open and friendly, and he didn’t balk when I told him, “You’re not my audience.”

Haynes seemed to understand the role of the free press, and he’s repeatedly said he’s “all about building bridges.”

Well, what are those bridges made of? Trust and good faith? Maybe, but not for long.

That’s because we got around to Southpoint Park and its toxic wastes.

…every time I dig deeper I find something worse…

Before wrapping up, I emphasized my concerns about Southpoint and promised to follow up with questions. I soon wrote…

“We’re not getting both sides of the story here. All I’m hearing from in detail are protestors, and because every time I dig deeper I see something worse, I’d like to ask you to weigh in on what seem to be most troubling aspects. The core issues go back well before your time here, but they still have to be addressed now.”

From there, I went into detail about unanswered questions.

What did the Leslie Torres administration actually do after finding toxins in the park? Were the solutions thorough or bandaids?

Why weren’t the toxins Langan found in its 2014 survey disclosed to the public? And why, after concealing information from the public, along with RIOC, was Langan awarded a monster contract for reinventing the park?

More importantly, why wasn’t the source of contaminants being addressed?

Bridges break with RIOC over toxic wastes…

That was on July 20th, and Haynes answered promptly.

“…we will regroup and provide an update tomorrow,” he wrote in an email.

But on the 21st, he wrote, “I need a bit more time to get back to you…”

Then, on the 22nd, Haynes announced Langan was starting work on Southpoint’s shorelines, disregarding questions about toxic wastes.

Haynes never answered my questions, and it’s nearly five months now.

When I called him on it, he and RIOC’s communications staff ghosted me. They won’t answer me about the time of day, and it’s an ugly form of press censorship.

And needless to say, people with nothing to hide simply don’t hide things.

Another Route, Doing It The Right Way

By September, it became apparent that Haynes was never going to answer; so, I resorted to the resource set up to prevent governments from hiding information.

Or, at least, that’s the goal.

I sent a pair of FOIL requests on September 10th. Both asked for details about how RIOC managed Southpoint toxic wastes. But my research, also, uncovered a bonanza.

I found that, way back in 2010, Langan submitted a “Full Environmental Assessment” of Southpoint, and this opened the door to “What did they know and when did they know it?”

RIOC cynically hides toxic waste info behind the coronavirus…

Yesterday, nearly three months later, RIOC updated its stalling maneuvers. Answering both requests the same way:

“Please note that as part of the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic, some of RIOC employees may be working off-site. As such, there may be delays in response to FOIL requests.”

Sure.

In the real world, Haynes boasts about how efficiently RIOC’s operating. And the legal staff responsible for FOIL requests has wasted countless hours harassing the Wildlife Freedom Foundation in retaliation for not toeing the line.

But the questions will not go away, no matter how long RIOC stalls behind flimsy excuses.

What’s worse, though, is that RIOC’s toxic wastes aren’t going away either, although the state seems devoted to disguising facts instead of handling them.

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