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Gowanus toxic fume probe expands to both sides of polluted canal

An investigation into toxic fumes beneath the popular Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club in Gowanus, Brooklyn, has expanded to 273 nearby properties.

The Department of Environmental Conservation sent letters to the owners of properties on both sides of the fetid waterway in October, seeking access so investigators could test for hazardous chemicals like trichloroethylene, or TCE.

The state agency said in a statement that the properties were the subject of a “soil vapor intrusion investigation” that involves “sampling of sub-slab vapors, indoor air and ambient air.” The agency pledged to keep the public informed as the investigation proceeds through March of next year.

TCE, a cancer-causing chemical, was first detected at the shuffleboard spot in March 2021. Readings found TCE levels 20 times above state limits. The building’s owners, the Brodsky Organization and Avery Hall Investments, are building a 350-unit mixed-use development around the shuffleboard club.

The state posted its first public notice about the contamination at 514 Union St. five months later. In 2022, state environmental investigators began testing the air quality at 33 properties on nearby President, Union and Nevins streets. Royal Palms workers and many Gowanus residents said they didn’t learn about the discovery until Gothamist reported about it in March 2023.

The Department of Environmental Conservation and the club’s owners say the indoor air is safe to breathe thanks to a remediation system meant to capture vapors before they enter the building. The agency says the site has posed no significant health or safety risks during the state’s investigation and cleanup.

The 17,000-square-foot shuffleboard space is on one of many brownfields contaminated by chemicals from Gowanus’ industrial past. The Royal Palms site was once home to companies that manufactured building materials and other products.

The Gowanus Canal is one of the country’s most notoriously contaminated waterways. Beginning in the 19th century, an array of industries operated on the waterfront, including coal yards, cement works, manufactured gas plants, tanneries, machine shops, chemical plants, paint manufacturers. Many of the contaminants from those industries wound up in the canal and in the ground. Efforts to clean up the 100-foot wide, 1.8-mile-long canal gained momentum under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. His administration proposed major housing developments overlooking the discolored, malodorous waterway nicknamed Lavender Lake.

An ongoing federal effort to clean up the canal, which is a Superfund site, includes removal of a sludge known as “black mayonnaise,” which is composed of sewage and chemicals. Gonorrhea was famously detected in the Gowanus in 2007.

Elected officials have said the state should have been more forthcoming about issues at the Royal Palms.

The soil vapor system installed at the Royal Palms will require monitoring to ensure the indoor air quality remains safe.

Cort Ruddy, a spokesperson for the state’s health department, wrote in an email that the agency’s allowable levels of TCB are “lower than those that cause health effects.” The “levels are established with the assumption that people are exposed 24 hours a day, every day, for as long as a lifetime,” he added, though such lengthy exposure is rare.

Brooklyn residents who want to keep tabs on a cleanup site’s indoor readings and remediation progress can sign up for email alerts by county on the DEC’s website. The agency also maintains online records for each site in its Brownfield Cleanup Program, including the Royal Palms site at 514 Union St. That set of documents includes monthly “Community Updates” written in easy-to-understand English. The latest, published in mid-April, spells out the ways Langan Engineering, an independent contractor and environmental consultant, plans to clean up the site and surrounding areas. An updated site plan — published in July — stated the next indoor air sampling is scheduled for this month.

Katia Kelly, a Brooklyn resident for more than 30 years and a member of Voice of Gowanus, said she doesn’t trust the state health and environmental conservation departments because they “kept the public in the dark for years about toxic indoor air hazards at Royal Palms and other areas of the Gowanus Canal community.”

But Royal Palms pushed back against the criticism.

“The DEC has made it very clear that the Royal Palms was and continues to be safe for both staff and visitors. We encourage everyone to get their information from their qualified experts rather than the bad faith pseudoscientists peddling misinformation to the detriment of our community,” the club said in a statement.

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