National News

The Toxic Ball Fields of Brooklyn

Posted May 5, 2018 4:26 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — On a warm Saturday in April, most of the baseball diamonds and soccer fields in Red Hook, Brooklyn, were deserted. Vast tracts of brown grass sat empty behind locked gates, 4-foot-high weeds blowing in the wind. Just a few years ago, if you came down here on a Saturday, there were hundreds, sometimes thousands, of adults and children — some playing soccer, baseball or softball, others taking part in the shot put and long jump, crowds of parents and friends cheering them on.

Wally Bazemore, who grew up in the nearby Red Hook Houses back in the 1950s, played on these fields as a kid, and later coached Little League. His son played here as well. “Every day we played out here,” he said, staring out at the empty land. “We had a great time.”

But since 2015, most of the Red Hook fields have been closed because of lead contamination in the soil. A $107 million cleanup plan by the New York City parks department has been delayed, leaving residents, coaches and parents anxious and confused.

“We need our fields back,” Bazemore said. “But safe.”

Problems started in 2012 when the parks department and the city’s health department learned of a dissertation by an environmental scientist who identified close to 500 lead-smelting sites around the country. One of the smelters once stood in Red Hook, right across the street from the housing projects and right on top of some of the playing fields.

In the late 1920s and ‘30s, Columbia Smelting and Refining Works operated on the corner of Hicks and Lorraine streets, leaving lead in the soil that would eventually become Fields 5, 6, 7 and 8 — the same fields that Bazemore and generations of children once played on. The parks department and the health department tested the soil in 2012, finding lead levels four times the safe limit on the surface and nearly 10 times the limit further underground. They quickly closed them. A concrete pad to guard against the lead was laid down. The fields and grass were hydroseeded.

“They let us on the fields the following season, so we figured everything was fine,” said Bazemore, who lives in the apartment he grew up in. “When they closed them again, we were like, what the hell happened?”

In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency did further testing in the surrounding fields and found more elevated lead levels, causing the parks department to close the fields for a four-phase cleanup that has yet to begin.

Work was set to start this spring on Fields 5 through 8 — the worst of the bunch and closest to the housing projects — but has now been pushed back a year because of delays in the construction bidding process. A contractor is being approved, and work should be completed by fall 2020, when a 12-inch buffer of clean fill will be topped by a drainage layer and then synthetic turf.

Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, who represents Red Hook, is dubious about the delays to the fields that serve a community both geographically and economically isolated from Brownstone Brooklyn. She has been aware of the toxic ball fields since 2012, she said, noting that the community had originally been promised the fields would reopen by 2018. Then 2019. “And now to come back and say 2020?” Velázquez asked. “Why can’t they find a way to deal with this issue and get it done? It forces you to ask why this low-income community almost six years later is still dealing with this.”

Phase 2 will include Field 2, which is a now-closed soccer pitch, as well as the adjacent Field 9, which is clean enough to remain open for baseball games. That phase should be competed by spring 2021. The field inside the running track — Field 3 — is closed, as are the four fields back near the looming Red Hook grain terminal. They should be completed by fall 2021 as part of Phase 3. Those southernmost sites, originally tidal marsh, were most likely contaminated from historic fill added in the 1800s, long before the Columbia smelting plant.

Two other soccer fields — one used by youth soccer and one by adult teams from Liga Mexicana — were safe enough to remain open; they will be among the last cleaned, by spring 2023. But a sign outside Field 9 casts an ominous shadow over the games being played there. “Digging into the subsoil is prohibited,” it reads, “and hand-washing after playing is recommended.”

“Right now, it looks like a scene from ‘The Walking Dead,'” said Ed O’Donnell, a fire chief who works nearby on Richard Street with the 32nd Battalion. “I pass by there every day, and it’s just depressing.” O’Donnell was a director of the Gjoa youth soccer club for 10 years and not only coached but also watched his own son and daughter play on these fields. “We played on just about every field down there.”

When parents and coaches found out about the lead years ago, meetings were held. Some leagues moved to other neighborhoods, to the Parade Grounds and Brooklyn Bridge Park. Many soccer parents had their children tested for lead, though no mandatory testing was ordered.

O’Donnell said his children and many in the league were tested, and no elevated levels were found as far as he knows. But Bazemore, who has since tried to organize the community, said that many of the children in the housing projects were never tested. Lead poisoning can lead to numerous health issues, particularly in those younger than 6, leading to brain damage as well as nervous system and kidney problems.

Ten years ago, in fact, Bazemore developed kidney cancer, and he wonders if playing on those badly contaminated sites had anything to with it. “I had a tumor the size of a baseball in my kidney,” he said. He is in remission, but he worries that others in the community were affected and don’t even know it.

Corey Stern, a lawyer who is handling the cases of children exposed to lead paint in public housing, including the Red Hook Houses, said that many of the families living there don’t have regular health insurance. “And a lot of the time, they don’t even know they should get tested,” he said.

EPA officials say that although surface levels were high on some of the fields, children who used the park are not considered at risk because they played there only a few days a week, a few hours at a time, and only during warmer months. And since the fields have been capped and resodded, the chances of recent lead exposure is very low.

Martin Maher, the Brooklyn parks commissioner, said that with the levels of lead now on the fields, “you would have to eat two garbage pails of that dirt” to have any health problems. “We’re dealing with huge margins of safety here,” he said. “But we’re not taking any chances.”

The department has let the fields grow over, he said, to discourage kids from hopping a fence or using wire cutters to break in and play on them. “I grew up in Brooklyn, I was a teenager once,” he said. “If you see a nicely mowed field and it’s closed, you’ll find a way in.”

The parks department has been holding regular public meetings to keep the community abreast of what’s happening with the cleanup — the latest meeting was held Monday — and it has told residents lead testing is not advised but is available. Anyone concerned can call 646-632-6032 or 311 for information on clinics that provide testing. At a recent baseball game between the Agulias and the Angels on Field 9 — the one with the alarming hand-washing sign — corrido music was blaring from a speaker as an announcer called the game in Spanish. The Mexican flag hung behind home plate. Popcorn and peanuts were for sale, and one woman had a small stove to make tacos and other Mexican specialties. Except for the deserted, overgrown fields surrounding them, everything seemed normal.

The president of the baseball league, Liborio Hernandez, was worried — not just about the health effects. He often reminds players to shake their shoes off before they step into their homes. But Hernandez — like most league organizers and coaches — was concerned about the cleanup plan taking so long.

“New York City is too compact and too complicated,” he said. “There aren’t enough fields. So closing all these fields has really caused a problem throughout the city.” He said that his league would have access to Field 9 through May, but that after that it was a mystery as to where they would be playing because of the long list of teams waiting for space.

O’Donnell, who now coaches soccer for St. Saviour High School, said closing so many fields had affected everyone in the city. “Getting space to play on is incredibly difficult,” he said. “I’ve never had problems like I have now getting permits. Everyone keeps asking why it’s taking so long.”

Maher, the parks commissioner, said the crunch from the missing Red Hook fields is being compounded by work being done simultaneously at many other fields across the city. He understands the community’s frustration, but said the end result will be a state-of-the-art recreation space with synthetic turf, new drinking fountains and even some new lighting.

City officials say such a big job is complicated — it requires removing fencing, curbing, benches, structures, relocating a bus stop on Lorraine Street, installing drainage systems and new utility lines, pulling out trees and planting new ones.

Flooding in Red Hook has to be taken into account as well, said Karen Blondel, an environmental activist whose Lorraine Street window looked out onto the most contaminated ball fields. “In this area we get surge, and with surge we get seepage,” she said. To address those concerns, a bioswale — landscaping designed to remove contaminants from runoff water — will be added to the design as well. Blondel hopes it will be enough.

Bazemore maintains that if the contamination had been in a more upscale neighborhood, the remediation would have been done long ago. “If this stuff was in Staten Island or some other area that wasn’t racially mixed, say Brooklyn Heights, it would have been done correctly the first time. Now our kids are running all over the place.” He has tried to mobilize the community on the cleanup fight, even staging a protest at one point. But not many residents come out. “We’re constantly fighting,” he said. “We’re the armpit of Brooklyn.” Asbestos, lead paint, a battle over a garbage transfer station, Hurricane Sandy and the floods that devastated the community, are all issues that have worn people down, he said. “This is just one of so many problems we’ve had to deal with.”

Of course, he said, the fields and public housing probably never should have been built so close to a contaminated area in the first place. “You can call it environmental racism,” he said, “but it’s more classism.” Back in the 1940s, the Red Hook Houses were built for many of the Italian and Irish longshoreman and factory workers who had been living in homemade shacks near the site. Latino and African-American families followed.

It was a time before environmental testing was done. The smelting plant was joined by paint and dye factories. But it’s that long-gone industry that gives Red Hook its uncrowded, wide-open feel and its stock of converted warehouses and factories.

“It’s the industry that brought the people here in the first place looking for work,” Blondel said. “It’s what made this area what it was and what it is.” She shook her head and looked across at the closed baseball diamonds. “Now the industry is gone, and we have to deal with it.”