Entrepreneurs operating on contaminated sites are displaced when cleanup time arrives

For two decades, Alberto Rodriguez has worked in the same cavernous garage along the border between Queens and Brooklyn, surrounded by the clang of metal and the rumbling of engines awaiting repair.

It turns out that he has also been toiling amid potentially dangerous levels of radiation.

Mr. Rodriguez’s shop, Los Primos Auto Repair and Sale, is one of six businesses at the intersection of Cooper and Irving Avenues in Ridgewood, Queens, New York City that have been targeted for demolition as part of a cleanup plan released recently by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The businesses are sitting on top of a Superfund site, the term for sites covered by a program that finances the cleanup of the most dangerous hazardous waste sites. The Superfund program was established as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA).

The primary objective of Superfund is to deal with a tragically-common situation: a business dumps toxic waste on the land, and then declares bankruptcy to avoid having to pay for the damage done to the community. Taxpayers are then left holding the bag. Many critics decry this as a public subsidy for corporations.

For instance, mining companies remove publicly-owned assets from a nation’s ground, earn profits from it, and then fold the corporation into another so that the citizens have to pay for the cleanup and restoration of the streams, lake and fisheries killed by the runoff. Libertarians refer to this as “free enterprise”, but it sounds more like corporate welfare to many observers.

But business owners like Mr. Rodriguez didn’t contaminate the land they occupy. They trusted the local government not to allow unsafe land to be sold in the first place. He has now turned the block into a one-stop shop for automotive needs. He sees it as a community asset, not a threat. It houses a tire shop, a motorcycle repair shop and another auto repair shop — the proposed plan threatens to uproot all of these well-established livelihoods.

While Mr. Rodriguez acknowledges that the contamination must be dealt with, he complains “when you move, you have to start again. The customers, they don’t follow you.”

Mr. Rodriguez’s shop sits atop land formerly occupied by the Wolff-Alport Chemical Company, which from the 1920s through the 1950s extracted metals from imported sand.

In the process, the company produced waste containing two radioactive elements, thorium and uranium, which it disposed of by dumping the waste into sewers and perhaps also by burying it, according to the federal plan.

The US EPA has been aware of radioactive contamination at the site since at least 1988, but it was not until 2014 that the agency assigned Superfund status to the site.

Before then, the E.P.A. installed interim protections, including placing slabs of concrete, lead and steel beneath floors and sidewalks to block radiation from emanating upward.

Local business owners now threatened with displacement say the feds should have done the job right in the beginning, rather than just putting a Band-Aid® on it.

Photo via Google Maps.

See full New York Times article by Vivian Wang.

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