In passing, the old plastics factory located at Franklin and Dupont Streets in Greenpoint seems like an abandoned industrial relic. In actuality, the curved, art moderne NuHart building has become an increasingly attractive property that has swapped hands several times in just a few years. But the 1930s building is tagged as a superfund site—meaning it contains hazardous waste threatening the environment and public health—and a legal standoff is preventing it from being razed for a 325-unit apartment building. Monday, neighbors demanded answers about the state of the project and the complicated cleanup process.
For decades, chemical toxic waste spilled or was disposed of irresponsibly at the factory, leaking into Greenpoint’s soil and groundwater. Yoel Goldman’s All Year Management was supposed to start cleanup and demolition of the site at the end of last year, after signing an agreement to acquire the NuHart site for more than $55 million from a group of investors led by Bo Jin Zhu. But All Year Management didn’t close on the deal because Zhu’s company, Dupont Street Developers LLC, was unable to provide a clean title, sources familiar with the situation told Bedford + Bowery. To this day, the old plastics factory near the confluence of the East River and Newtown Creek remains in the hands of Zhu and Dupont Street Developers.
“It doesn’t make sense to spend money now,” said Joel Friedman, advisor and consultant on the project for All Year Management. He said the company was “absolutely” still invested in closing on the deal and moving forward with the proposed 325-unit residential-and-commercial development. “We hope that it should happen any day,” he said.
One of the lawsuits holding up the remediation and demolition of the old plastics factory got to New York State Supreme Court in March, after Goldberg Zonio & Associates of New York (GZA) filed a complaint against Zhu and Dupont Street Developers for allegedly failing to pay environmental cleanup services amounting to $283,149 plus interest (in June of 2019, this amount totaled $359,599).
In case transcripts, the plaintiff’s attorney explains that on Aug 26, 2016, GZA agreed to provide environmental waste or cleaning services at the Nuhart site, and that it rendered the services from Oct. 4, 2016 till 2019. She added that in December of 2017, Zhu wrote a promissory note to pay the $283,149.
On June 12, the court ruled in favor of GZA, who was seeking a summary judgment against the defendant (Zhu). Transcripts point out that a similar case is pending in which GZA seeks payment for services provided from January of 2018 through June, 2018.
Bedford + Bowery reached out to Dupont Street Developers for comment, but did not hear back.
According to the Real Deal, Zhu is a Queens-based developer who likes to keep a low profile, “preferring to let his deals speak for him.” Zhu took a stake in the NuHart property in 2014, after Joseph Brunner sold, or “flipped,” his contract of sale to Chaim Miller for $39 million in 2013. The superfund site was also at the center of litigation in 2015, after Miller sued Brunner over an allegedly unpaid loan of $4.3 million which would go toward the purchase of the site.
The litigation ended up in the New York Eastern Bankruptcy Court in May of last year, and by that point 13 parties were involved. The bankruptcy court judge found the plaintiffs acted in bad faith, dismissed Miller and two other petitioning creditors, barred them from filing any new petitions against Brunner for two years, and imposed punitive damages of $600,000 on them.
On Monday, neighbors living in the vicinity of the toxic site reunited at the Polish & Slavic Center in Brooklyn for an update on its cleanup. They asked for news on the change of ownership, but there was none. Ben Solotaire, a representative of council member Stephen Levin, reminded attendees that the owners were in litigation against each other and that the cleanup could not move forward until the deal closed. He had no further details.
“We heard that they would be finalized as of fall,” said Mike Schade of the North Brooklyn Neighbors organization. “But we heard that before, that it would be finalized by a certain time period and that slipped. So while we are hopeful this will move forward it’s safe to say this could very well take longer than expected given our past experience with the site.”
During the meeting, around 30 Greenpoint residents sat around tables and listened as technical advisors Joseph Gardella and Alan Rabideau summarized the highlights of the remedial program recently selected by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to clean the contaminated groundwater plume that is spreading underneath and beyond the factory underground. The remedial program (also called Record of Decision or ROD) is one more step in the long haul of cleaning up the toxic chemicals. The ROD is not a definite plan, but rather a 69-page marking post that identifies solutions to dispose of the “significant threats to the public health and the environment,” per North Brooklyn Neighbors.
Prior to meeting with the community, the newly appointed Gardella and Rabideau took a tour inside the building with some representatives of the DEC and said they felt optimistic about the cleanup. “We got a much better understanding of what’s going on,” said Rabideau, who tried to appease neighbors’ anxiety about rodents by saying that they didn’t see any critters scurrying around the potential rat haven.
Out of all of the pollutants found at the toxic plastics factory, experts focused their attention on two. The first was a gunky, viscous class of chemical—phthalates—that intermixed with the subsoil and in some areas spreads as wide as four feet thick. “This particular chemical, as annoying as it is, will not get into the air, unlike the other stuff that we haven’t gotten into yet,” said Rabideau, evoking nervous laughter from the small crowd. He meant TCE, a once-popular industrial solvent and one of the most common pollutants found at superfund sites today. TCE (trichloroethylene) is denser than water but volatile, meaning that as it evaporates, it makes its way out of the shallow groundwater and finds its way into people’s basements and living spaces.
“Are we being exposed to that already?” asked a man who indicated his home was near the north side of the NuHart building, where the TCE plume is found.
“I don’t know,” was Rabideau’s frank response.
Nobody knows how the contamination originally occurred. “It could have been dumped outside, or spilled inside,” Rabideau told Bedford + Bowery. “The floor is made of concrete, and concrete is porous. They don’t know how it got to the groundwater.”
The favored methods of TCE removal are air sparging and vapor mitigation. Air sparging speeds up the vaporization but funnels and captures the pollutants, whereas the vapor mitigation technique sucks out the chemicals with an exhaust pipe.
A big question mark is how to treat the toxic plume that has migrated from outside the approximately one-acre block of the building perimeter. A tentative solution is to strategically install wells and trenches to try and remove the chemicals from the ground, but some just can’t be pumped out and might be best left alone under the surface, Rabideau explained.
The overall remedial plan, so far, is as follows: the developers will hire an engineering firm to install a wall made of interlocked steel sheets and pound it 30 feet into the ground in order to contain the pollutants; they will tear down the existing building and excavate 16 feet into the ground to extricate 22,500 cubic yards of soil. “The barriers are state-of-the-art in terms of environmental protection,” Rabideau reassured.
A woman who said she lived across the street from the superfund site wondered if pounding into the ground would affect the foundations of adjacent homes. “Those houses are from 1870. They precede all of this,” she said.
The advisors didn’t know.