Initially installed in late 2012, an intricate series of pipes sucks a lingering plume of solvents out from the ground at the former New York Air Brake site on Starbuck Avenue and sends it harmlessly into the air on the city's north side.
Working much like a residential radon gas system but on a much grander scale, the air-mitigation system is designed to remove trichloroethylene — the same carcinogen about which north side residents have expressed health concerns for years — from underneath buildings at the former Air Brake site, now the Watertown Center for Business and Industry.
The 3-inch plastic pipes run underneath concrete slabs that make up the old Air Brake plant's floor, then snake up walls and support beams and along ceilings in parts of all four buildings that make up the Starbuck Avenue complex. A series of exhaust fans on outside walls is used to vent the chemical out from the buildings and into the air.
William J. Soluri, the site manager who runs the small-business center, said the pipes are barely noticeable.
“It looks like it's a part of the building,” he said.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Health required SPX Corp., the North Carolina company that was involved in previous Air Brake cleanup efforts, to install the sub-slab depressurization system after testing detected TCE under the concrete slab flooring, DEC spokesman Stephen W. Litwhiler said. In 2008, DEC found unacceptable levels of TCE — a cleaning solvent used in degreasing machinery parts — in four on-site buildings at the Starbuck Avenue complex and a house at 431 E. Hoard St. after new soil vapor intrusion technology was developed about 10 years ago. The structures subsequently were equipped with air-mitigation systems, and DEC has been monitoring levels since then, Mr. Litwhiler said.
Last year, the Vititoe Law Group, the firm made famous by environmental activist Erin Brockovich, agreed to represent residents who believe they have suffered health problems from toxic chemicals dumped at the Starbuck Avenue site. Many have said they believe that contaminants were dumped in Kelsey and Oily creeks near the site. A lawsuit is expected to be filed soon.
James P. Barker, one of the residents who initiated the potential legal action, said he was unaware of the complexity of the air-mitigation system. He also said he believes contaminants remain under the ground at the site.
“It seems like it's doctoring the symptoms and not addressing the problem,” he said.
However, Mr. Soluri called it “an ongoing process,” crediting SPX and DEC officials for making the site safe.
“At no time has our tenants been in any danger,” he said. “SPX has done an outstanding job.”
Jennifer H. Epstein, SPX's vice president of marketing and communications, said it cost $670,000 to install all of the equipment. Golder Associates, a national company that specializes in environmental compliance projects, designed the equipment using the state's specifications. Its installation was completed by Alpine Environmental Services LLC, a Connecticut environmental contractor.
Its installation is related to the Superfund cleanup of the site that began in the 1990s, Mr. Litwhiler said.
The system has been working as it was designed, he said, adding DEC provides “oversight of the project.”
While it was installed about the same time that the north side residents brought up the TCE issue in 2012, Mr. Litwhiler denied that it had anything to do with the pending lawsuit. It just took that much time to design the system, make sure it worked and then install it, he said.
High levels of TCE, a carcinogen that also is associated with causing nerve disorders, can be a health risk when it is encountered in a contained area indoors, he said. But when it is vented into the air, the chemical is no longer dangerous.
In November, additional equipment was installed after TCE was detected in other parts of the small-business center that was previously not being used and then tenants moved in, Mr. Litwhiler said. The equipment does not work in unheated storage areas, so there is no reason to install piping in unused sections, he said.
Mr. Litwhiler also acknowledged that contaminants remain under a section of one of the buildings that was torn down decades ago. DEC is aware of the TCE under the remaining concrete slab — known as Allison's Testing Room — and plans to dig up the slab and the contaminated soil this year.
The room was used during the manufacturing of hydraulic equipment, but Mr. Litwhiler could not provide any further details of the levels of contaminants found there.
Mr. Barker said he recalled seeing documents about Allison's Room, and that the levels were quite high.