Digging Underway At Potential Source of L Train Oil Spill Where A Developer Plans to ‘Add’ 4-Stories to Gas Station

John Bolger Feb 14, 2019

The MTA and DEC dug their first holes at an abandoned gas station suspected to be the source of last week’s L train oil spill early Thursday morning. A small dig team, equipped with a concrete saw and a Bobcat track loader, accompanied by a state environmental engineer and an MTA employee, punched two holes into the asphalt top and began digging with shovels by 10 AM.

Hundreds of thousands of riders were exposed last week to the potentially dangerous fumes that resulted from the spill while the MTA kept the L train running through the incident, despite concerns from riders, the transit workers’ union, and local politicians.

The source of the spill, which began ten days ago, sickened riders and led to the hospitalization of four MTA workers, is not yet known. Industrial fans continue to exhaust the Graham Avenue Station, but the MTA and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) are short on details.

Meanwhile, the owner of the abandoned gas station filed plans with the city Department of Buildings (DOB) last week — three days into the spill — to build a four-story retail and office building on the site. The development would occupy most of the property’s footprint where potentially unknown fuel tanks lay buried. There may be up to five tanks on the property yet to be removed, based on an online DEC database of bulk storage tanks.

Even if the fumes are gone, the damage will linger in the ground, potentially for years to come.

The DEC declined to comment as to whether its records were up to date. They frequently are not but based on its available records the tanks range in size from 275 to 4000 gallons,11,550 gallons in total. They have not been tested since October 2017. The plans filed with the Buildings Department by the firms Feingold & Gregory Architects and Morozov Engineering DPC make no mention of fuel tanks or the removal thereof. Demolition permits were filed with the DOB in November of 2017 to “remove fuel tank and canopy,” but more detailed records were not available. The Daily News reports that a long-abandoned tank buried at the property was being floated by the MTA as a likely source of the spill.

Complicating potential remediation, the plans for the new building call for an alteration to an existing building — the gas station — rather than a new building proper. This is a common building practice, to build a new, much larger building above and around an existing structure in order to avoid the construction being designated a “new building.” By claiming that a new building is an expansion of an older building, property owners avoid property tax increases, as well as expensive insurance policies required to perform demolition and remediation.

How does one add a four-story building to a gas station?

The plans call for the creation of a “vertical and horizontal enlargement” of the existing building that will extend nearly to the sidewalk in both directions. An elevator will be added, as well as a rooftop garden and balcony. According to the filing, the cost estimate for the construction is $1.4 million, 5 percent of which is itemized for renovating the existing structure. The remaining budget will go strictly toward the 10,875 additional square feet, nearly a 10-fold increase in size from the original structure. The gas station owners will also plant six trees at an off-site location, according to the documents. As of 2014 “EMC2 Bushwick LLC” is listed as the gas station’s deed holder and one Junsup Chung is listed as the owner and/or leaseholder on the construction application.

DEC records, first reported by the Daily News, show the gas station has been a public nuisance for decades. The site of at least five spills since 1989, when it was reported that 20 gallons of gasoline drained into the sewer.

The MTA first recognized there was a potential spill in the tunnel last Tuesday, one day after initial reports were misidentified as lingering diesel exhaust fumes from weekend work in the L train tunnel. On Tuesday morning, service was suspended for at least two hours while the MTA investigated and DEC assessed the air quality.  

The Indypendent has learned that at various times since the incident began, air sampling was conducted. Photoionization detectors (PIDs) were also used. PIDs provide general real-time measurements of volatile organic compounds in the air but lack the precision of air sampling to determine specific contaminants. PIDs are not sensitive to all harmful gases, such as methane. But for the increased precision of air sampling, its drawback is that it takes much longer to get results. It takes longer to gather samples and then they must undergo a post-collection laboratory analysis. Air sample results may not be ready for hours or even a day after the start of collection.

It is unclear what testing DEC conducted during last Tuesday’s service disruption and when DEC received the laboratory results from samples taken. The agency has not commented on the timeline of its testing despite repeated requests, but according to a document obtained by The Indypendent, a private contractor for the MTA conducted a walkthrough of the affected areas using a PID device last Thursday, day four of the spill.

The contractor toured the platforms of Bedford Avenue, Lorimer Street, Graham Avenue and Grand Street stations, riding the L train between destinations. According to the document, the reading on the contractor’s device did not register contaminants. According to the device’s user manual, its sensitivity threshold begins at 1.0 parts per million. The odor threshold for diesel fuel is 0.7 ppm, according to the NJ Department of Health.

MTA turnstile data analyzed by The Indypendent indicates riders entered and exited the four stations most affected by the oil fumes nearly half a million times last week. This tally does not include riders who transferred to or from the G train, riders who used an emergency exit, or riders who did not pay the fare — meaning the actual count is probably higher. Nor does it include riders who passed through the affected stations on the train on their way to and from Manhattan or deeper in Brooklyn, of which there is no reliable public data to count. If the count is expanded to include riders who passed through the First Avenue station across the East River where the smell of oil was also reported, the number climbs to more than 700,000.

Even if the fumes are gone, the damage will linger in the ground, potentially for years to come. Fuel spills can penetrate deep into the ground and leave behind a long-lasting toxic presence, according to the federal Department of Health and Human Services’ Toxicological Profile for Fuel Oils. Depending on conditions, the report notes, “Chemicals that attach to soil or other matter may remain in the environment for more than a decade.” It remains to be seen what long-term health impacts the lingering chemicals will have on riders.

Photo: The suspected site of the L Train oil spill where a developer plans to erect a four-story building. Credit: Indypendent Staff.

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