In August 2005, the New York Police Department, with the Department of Energy, conducted an anti-terrorism radiation flyover survey. The survey was intended to provide a baseline of radiological activity, in order to catch a suspicious construction of a dirty bomb.
They didn’t find a dirty bomb—but there was plenty of radiological activity. Surveyors found 80 radioactive locations in the city—one of them being Great Kills Park in Staten Island, one of the city’s five boroughs. The Park is a popular place near a suburban enclave inhabited by cops, firefighters and other unsuspecting residents. The Park, more than 500 acres of woods surrounding softball and soccer fields and a marina, was constructed from garbage dumped in the bay between 1944 and 1946. Unregulated and illegal dumping has a long history in New York City.
Children Are Especially Vulnerable
The radium is the legacy of nuclear weapons production coupled with a cavalier attitude towards the odorless, tasteless and invisible threat posed by radioactivity.
“This is potentially a very dangerous situation,” said former Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) in 2013, whose congressional district includes the park. “The last thing I want is to have anyone or their children get sick or hurt because of this contamination.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), children are more susceptible than adults to radiation because they are still growing. Their cells are rapidly dividing, which provides a greater opportunity for radiation to disrupt the process than in adults. The main concern for children exposed to radium is leukemia, says international consultant Dr. Marvin Resnikoff, a spokesperson for Radioactive Waste Management Associates, which works on cleaning up radioactive waste dumps. Radium is chemically similar to calcium and has an affinity for bone where it irradiates the bone marrow.
Resnikoff told WhoWhatWhy that walking through Great Kills is like being “exposed to an X-ray machine you can’t turn off.” He added that children playing on the site could “get material on their hands and wipe their faces” causing “incidental ingestion” of radium.
Government Likely Still Underestimates the Problem
The government measurements probably underestimate the actual radiation levels in Great Kills, according to Resnikoff.
“One foot of dirt can shield up to 98% of gamma radiation” given off by the radium, he said, adding that there could be significant levels of radium buried under the soil. Dr. Resnikoff said the diffuse nature of the contamination in the park indicates a lot of the contamination may be uranium ore left over from the Manhattan Project days.
A WhoWhatWhy investigation has shown that it is likely that the material stems from the World War II nuclear weapons program and was dumped into a public landfill by radium companies that were little more than public fronts for the United States government during its effort to build the first atomic bomb.
In 1939 the United States, convinced it was in a race with Germany for the bomb, purchased all the uranium it could find. Belgian owners of the ore coveted the phenomenally valuable radium that existed side-by-side with the uranium. When the price of radium collapsed a few years later as better and safer sources of radioactivity were developed, the excess and unneeded radium would end up in the public waste stream.
More radioactive “hotspots” were reported in Great Kills in 2007 as the government dug up contaminated soil and medical devices used in past decades to apply radium to cancerous tumors.
By 2009, half the park was closed indefinitely as more and more contamination was unearthed. In 2014 a community meeting was held in Staten Island with the National Park Service (NPS), which admitted that the radioactive contamination was greater than predicted.
“As we’re getting through this tough job, we’re finding that the contamination is not only in these discrete pockets, but is dispersed in the soil and also at the surface,” Kathleen Cuzzolino, an environmental protection specialist for the Park Service told The New York Times in 2013.
Initial Explanation Doesn’t Hold Up
The NYPD initially said that the radioactivity in Great Kills was caused by “industrial” activities before the park was built. As the extent of the contamination was revealed, that story became less and less believable. The government embarked on a decade-long study of the contamination. What began as a few hotspots around discarded medical waste gradually evolved into a widespread and expensive problem. Eventually, the NPS announced that up to “1,200 discrete areas” of the park were contaminated with high radiation levels and also admitted that dozens of spots, some with radiation levels up to 200 times normal had also been found throughout the park.
After another flyover earlier this year, a new five-year study was announced under CERCLA, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. Known as the Superfund, it is the legal mechanism for cleaning up some of the nation’s most polluted areas. During cleanup, the areas contaminated by radiation remain closed off to the public.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) public health assessment categorized the radioactive contamination at Great Kills as an “indeterminate public health hazard.” That means the agency doesn’t have enough information to make a “professional judgement” on the potential damage to the public at Great Kills.
The report also warns that radiation exposure on children requires special considerations. Yet despite the construction of 18,000 feet of “perimeter fencing” and warning signs against trespassing, huge gaps within walking distance of playgrounds in this residential neighborhood allow easy access to the closed-off areas.