Toxic Soil at ‘Spitting Devil’


For the past six months, Concerned Parents (CP), a coalition of mothers and residents in the predominantly black and Latino Marble Hill and Kingsbridge areas of the Bronx, has been in court fighting over its right to know just how toxic the soil is in the Spuyten Duyvil area (at 230th Street and Tibbett Avenue) where the Board of Education plans to build Middle School-High School 368, completing an “educational corridor” comprising John F. Kennedy High School and P.S. 37.

The parents’ first battle began last fall when the city tore up a teachers’ parking lot—built over contaminated soil from an old industrial dump site—to construct an Emergency Medical Services (EMS) ambulance station adjacent to P.S. 37. Immediately, their worries about the safety and sensibleness of building the EMS facility a stone’s throw away from an elementary school were overshadowed by concerns about the health of the children who might inhale billowing dust clouds from the construction site on their way to school. As Myrna Calderon, a member of the District 10 School Board, put it, “We all knew from the controversy that surrounded the building of P.S. 37 six years ago that the soil around the school was contaminated.”

Before Spuyten Duyvil (Dutch for “spitting devil”) became a dumping site, it served as a railyard, according to Calderon. As recently as last year, rail ties treated with creosote (a carcinogen) were dug up in the garden at JFK High School. A larger field—between the elementary and high schools—earmarked for M.S.-H.S. 368 remains “unremediated” (contaminated). Soil samples tested in March ’99 by Roy F. Weston Inc. revealed that the site is a toxic “brown field” containing many volatile organic compounds and other contaminants in excess of four to six times the levels allowed by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

The city’s public advocate’s office has said that the DEC’s allowable levels of contaminants, set for adult males, are too high for children. In an April 2000 letter to neighborhood parents, Anne Rabe, director of the Citizens Environmental Coalition, said that since children often engage in “soil pica” (the ingesting of soil), the condition of the soil that they are exposed to is crucial.

According to Rabe, the federal Environmental Protection Agency‘s screening of other remediated sites (where chemicals in the soil, or the soil itself, have been removed) revealed that for certain chemicals “the contaminant dose from a soil pica episode . . . was equal to or exceeded that reported to be lethal and would have resulted in death.”

Last fall, CP undertook an investigation, spearheaded by June McMillan, a former member of Community Board 8, and called politicians to account for why construction is planned at a site residents believe poses health hazards. When tests conducted for CP determined that dangerously high amounts of lead dust had entered P.S. 37 from the construction site, the group won a temporary injunction against the TCH Delta construction company to cease work.

Although work ceased on the EMS project in December, CP has been in court several times since then to demand remediation. On May 12, New York state supreme court judge Anne E. Targum ordered TCH Delta to clean up and enclose the site. With this victory under its belt, the group has turned its full attention to halting the building of M.S.-H.S. 368.

At a joint community and school board meeting in April, Councilwoman June M. Eisland of the Bronx’s 11th District, who heads the city’s Land Use Committee and is a strong proponent of M.S.-H.S. 368, assured community members that the site would be remediated.

But as McMillan makes clear, the city’s earlier remediation efforts have proven inadequate. “The environmental impact statement [the EIS by law is subject to community review] on P.S. 37 found high levels of methane in the ground. At the time [the city] said this wasn’t a danger. Even though they removed 600 tons of soil, since the school has been built the fumes have been a problem. They had to redo the vents.”

Currently the group is demanding the completion of an EIS for M.S.-H.S. 368. Based on a review of earlier soil tests, the DEC has already recommended capping the site. “Children are being contaminated every day,” says McMillan. “The EIS that was done on P.S. 37 says that volatile organic compounds migrate to the soil’s surface and into structures. There’s no way you can excavate the area without putting the children at further risk. Why can’t the DEC tell the school board, ‘You can’t build here’? Who is the power behind this thing?”