Monday, April 20, 2009

Preservation of Historic Industrial Buildings vs. Public Health - here's one city's Horror Story

In 1996, a Hoboken, New Jersey resident watched silently as unidentified drops of liquid slowly dripped from the ceiling of the apartment on to a counter top in his/her home.

The recently redeveloped five-story brick building was located in a heavily populated, mostly residential section of Hoboken.

In the early to mid 1990's, the historic building, (which served as a former mercury vapor lamp and connector switch manufacturing facility for General Electric from 1910 to 1965), was converted into 16 residential apartments and artist studios.

The project was permitted by the NJ Department of the Environment (DEP) and the City of Hoboken in New Jersey. Like the WA State Department of Ecology, the New Jersey Environmental Department relies on consultant studies completed by former property owners and/or other entities responsible for clean up.

After discovering the mercury, the apartment's residents asked state health officials to investigate the drops. The health inspector found liquid mercury under the building's wooden floor boards and in the walls. Mercury vapor was detected in the air with monitors.Additional tests revealed unacceptable levels of mercury contamination in children living in the area.

The Army Corps of Engineers and EPA were called in.

The Corps assisted the EPA in evacuating and relocating the 16 families and 20 businesses that occupied the contaminated area.

The Federal government purchased the property from the owners and all of the displaced residents and businesses were moved to safe locations.

The building's windows were removed and the brick walls were inspected for mercury contamination. The brick was contaminated and the entire structure had to be removed. An air handling system was set up to filter out mercury vapors during remediation. Other measures included closing surrounding sidewalks, placing a fence around the contaminated area and installing air monitors to measure mercury vapor and dust in the neighborhood.

The concrete slab and subsurface piping was removed and mercury contaminated soils were excavated from the site.

"The Mercury contamination was overwhelming and truly a health hazard to anyone on or around it." said Neil Ravensbergen, project engineer for the remediation. "It's a shame to loose a piece of history, but it was a benefit to the overall environment."

Pure liquid mercury found on the site was recycled and mercury contaminated building material was disposed of at an approved hazardous waste landfill.

Don't think it could happen here?

At the former GP industrial site, Port of Bellingham consultant studies recommend that residential occupancy be banned on the first floor of some of the proposed structures in certain areas.

The Port's consulting firm also recommended that Mercury Vapor monitors be installed around new structures to monitor mercury vapors in and around buildings on the re-developed site.

I wonder, is this the kind of "clean up" and "re-development" our community is willing to live with?

What is the definition of an "acceptable" risk in regards to public health in Bellingham?

Well, here's what a former NJ DEP official had to say about private companies conducting the environmental studies: " The system is fatally flawed. The DEP relies on private companies, who have a legal and economic stake in minimizing the cost of clean-up," said Bill Wolfe, a former DEP analyst. "This is unfreakingbelievable. The private sector makes the decisions and the DEP and the public have been cut out of the process. This is like a police chief saying that we have so much crime we are going to ask criminals to turn themselves in."


The Grand Street Mercury site consisted of two former mercury vapor lamp and mercury connector switch production plants that were later renovated. One building was converted into apartments. The other building was to become townhomes, but had not been completed at the time contamination was found, and the townhomes were never finished, according to EPA. The surrounding area is a mix of residential and commercial properties.

EPA orders clean up of Condos:!OpenDocument

Hoboken City website: Grand rennovation project

ATSDR Study:


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