Williamsburg Environmental & Community Based Activism

REYES: El Puente, which is Spanish for The Bridge, has labeled the neighborhoods it serves in Brooklyn, New York City as some of the most environmentally hazardous residential areas in New York and claims that the high levels of contamination have contributed to an epidemic of health problems.

A 2007 EPA study confirms the existence of a decades old oil spill, buried underneath northern Brooklyn, estimated to contain between 17 million and 30 million gallons of oil. A City University of New York study conducted in 1997 found that the soil of Williamsburg, including one sample taken from a local playground, contained levels of lead 77 times greater than normal.

According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene levels of childhood asthma in Williamsburg are among the highest in the city at between 14 and 17 percent.
Luis Garden-Acosta, founder, president, and CEO of El Puente feels strongly about the disparity in toxicity and disease rates between the lower-income, mainly minority Williamsburg community that he lives in and the richer areas of New York City

LUIS GARDEN-ACOSTA: Its almost laughable to think that upper-class people would have to live with such a ticking time bomb.


REYES: Garden-Acosta says that the government has a responsibility to protect its citizens.

Garden-Acosta: and that minimally should at least inform them as to the state of their neighborhoods in regards to potential disease. And we are standing up in coalition with others to fight back.

REYES: In addition to these constant worries, El Puente has been engaged in another fight towards its goal of environmental justice. That is its campaign against the Radiac Research Corporation, a chemical and radioactive waste storage and transfer company that has according to its website operated a facility in the Williamsburg area since 1969, just blocks from local Public School 84 Jose De Diego. According to Garden-Acosta, the coming weeks will see a renewed effort to move the business from Williamsburg by pushing the state legislature to sign into law a ban on toxic substances near school zones. Should Governor Cuomo sign the bill into law, it will be the result of many years of organization, advocacy, and education propelled by El Puente.

REYES: Pedro Pedraza is a researcher at the El Centro Center for Puerto Rican Studies at New York City’s Hunter College, and works with El Puente developing participatory research projects for high-school students.

PEDRO PEDRAZA: Connecting health and the environment and those being related issues of social justice in general is where El Puente has been outstanding.

REYES: So when Luis Garden-Acosta noticed a radiation warning sign on a building on Kent Avenue and 1st street in North Brooklyn, in the 90’s he says he sent a group of his students to investigate.

According to Garden-Acosta, the group discovered the existence of Radiac Research Corporation’s Low-Level Radioactive Waste and hazardous mixed chemical waste storage and transfer station. This company had been operating next to three playgrounds and a school of 1200 mostly lower income and minority students for decades.

Radiac’s website shows that they have been fully licensed to operate the facility since 1969 and have done so without incident, War News Radio was unable to reach Radiac for further comment.

Further research by El Puente and activists that it supported, including a local student group named The Toxic Avengers, revealed what they believed to be the great danger posed by Radiac’s facility to the safety of the neighborhood. Garden-Acosta was specific about the dangers.

GARDEN-ACOSTA: their own consultants basically said there could be a fire coming out of the chemical side, and there’s only one door out of there and that’s through the nuclear side and if you open that door and the fire follows it could lead to the barrels of plutonium popping and you’d have a virtual mushroom cloud.

REYES: Garden-Acosta describes the chemicals stored as especially dangerous.

GARDEN-ACOSTA: We’re talking stuff like nerve gas, that if it ever leaks we have to evacuate the entire community.

REYES: War News Radio could find no evidence that chemical weapons have ever been stored or transferred through Radiac’s Brooklyn location. However, according to the Medscape Reference on Drugs, Diseases, & Procedures, organophosphates derived from neurotoxins referred to as nerve gas are known to have been used in medical treatments and tests. They are commonly used as industrial pesticides and have been employed extensively in New York’s Central Park. The New York Daily News reported that they had obtained internal documents that showed the Brooklyn facility “could hold up to 15000 gallons of poisons, acids, and flammable liquids, including deadly gasses like nitric oxide for up to a year”

According to El Puente, over years of activism on the Radiac issue they and their volunteers have gone door to door educating residents of the community on the existence and dangers of the facility. Of particular importance, says Garden-Acosta, was El Puente’s ability to forge coalitions with other local groups, including the Satmar Hasidic community, to precipitate important collective action. Most important to the Radiac Campaign, he points to the coalition’s push for a governmental hearing on the issue.

GARDEN-ACOSTA: We demanded there be for the first time a hearing…as to whether or not they should re-license Radiac. We had that hearing, the first one, the entire community came out, everybody, politicians, our own US senator Chuck Shumer, teachers, principles, parents, priests, ministers…every body spoke and ultimately Radiac said no mas.

REYES: After that hearing in May 2005 Radiac withdrew their application for an extension of their license to store hazardous chemical waste indefinitely says Garden-Acosta. However, according to their website they still hold and act under license as a radioactive waste storage facility, and the same dangerous materials can still be found at their Williamsburg location.

But Garden-Acosta and the El Puente community are optimistic that this year, after nearly two decades of work — the New York State legislature will pass a bill proposing the creation of a toxic free zone around all schools. A release from Joseph R. Lentol, the democrat Assemblyman for North Brooklyn states that the new law would prohibit any kind of radioactive waste facility within 1500 feet of a school.

GARDEN-ACOSTA: hopefully we will start again in a few weeks and get it going again and try to get the legislature to pass it again this year, and the senate to pass it again, this is not El Puente it is our assemblyman but clearly taking it from our playbook and from our research and our community organizing.

REYES: Even if Radiac is forced to move from Williamsburg this year, the area will remain overwhelmed by environmental problems. El Puente, and the members of its community, have a long struggle ahead of them to clean up the decades of pollution and to create a safe place for their families.

For War News Radio, I’m Justin Reyes

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