The former location of the Wolff-Alport Chemical Company in Ridgewood, Queens is the most radioactive spot in New York City. Today the EPA added the property to the list of federal Superfund sites. The other two superfund sites in the city are Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal. Nate Lavey video producer for The New Yorker talks about the history of the property and the risks to people who work there now.
Work began at the site nearly 100 years ago, with the production of rare earth metals as additives to steel and lighter flints. One of the byproducts of that industrial process is thorium – a radioactive element. “At that time they took their thorium byproduct and dumped it into the city’s sewer system,” said Lavey. “[The owners] would have known that thorium was radioactive…but they probably didn’t have a good idea of how dangerous the chemicals they were handling were.” The contamination is fairly localized to the site, but Lavey noted that the EPA is looking at nearby blocks as well.
Currently the site (at 1125-1129 Irving Avenue) houses an auto-body shop, a deli and a construction company. “The amount of residual radiation is pretty low, especially when you compare it to nuclear disasters we’re all familiar with” said Lavey. While radiation levels are low, they are still elevated. Working on the site is equivalent to getting about 30 chest x-rays a year, which is well below the amount of radiation exposure deemed safe for nuclear power plant workers. The risk to customers is minimal. The EPA has already installed some shielding at the site.
Although the site is now designated for Superfund remediation, it’s unclear how the cleanup will proceed and who will pay for it.