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Train in Vain: MTA Keeps L Running Despite Oil Spill Safety Concerns

John Bolger Feb 8

Oil is seeping into the L train tunnel and no one knows why. No one knows its source. No one knows how to stop it.

The seepage began Monday morning and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has tried in vain to remove the oil and the ensuing fumes from the tunnel and stations all week. Riders have reported feeling nauseous, vomiting and fainting.

At least four MTA employees have been hospitalized, with 20 more becoming ill. And there is no end in sight.

The MTA is washing stations and has set up exhaust fans at the Graham Avenue L train station, the epicenter of the oil spill. Meanwhile, it is continuing to run hundreds of trains per day through the L tunnel, potentially putting the long-term health of riders and its employees at risk.

The MTA’s chief safety officer, Patrick Warren, said the Fire Department, the city Department of Environmental Protection and state Department of Environmental Conservation are continually monitoring the air for safety quality. Speaking at a press conference held outside the Graham station Wednesday, Warren said it is not necessary for MTA employees to wear masks in the affected parts of the system.

Shortly after Warren’s remarks, however, an unmasked MTA employee mopping the station stairs began coughing furiously as a blast of noxious air was pushed up the stairwell by the arrival of a train.

The Source of the Spill

When contacted by The Indypendent, an FDNY spokesperson said that a hazmat team had visited the tunnel on Tuesday with a meter which detects natural gas, but that the FDNY itself did not conduct a “precise air quality test.” According to the spokesperson, it was the city and state environmental agencies which gave the tunnel the all clear to resume service on Tuesday. The FDNY has not been back to monitor air quality since.

According records examined by The Indy there are potentially at least 7 oil burners and 2 gas tanks near where the MTA purports the spill to be.

Neither environmental agency returned requests for comment as of press time.

In the meantime, the source of the leak remains undetected.

The city’s Department of Buildings (DOB), the agency responsible for licensing and inspecting oil burners, gas tanks and boilers, says it does not have jurisdiction over MTA property and it has not searched properties adjacent to the tunnel for the leaking fuel.

According to DOB records examined by The Indypendent there are potentially at least seven oil burners and two gas tanks on Metropolitan Avenue above the eighth of a mile stretch of tunnel east of Graham Avenue Station, where the MTA purports the spill to be. Publicly available records on the DOB website are incomplete and riddled with digital transcription errors, so the number could be much higher.

Even buildings that do not use oil heat concurrently may have derelict oil burners in the basement. Subterranean fuel tanks may be buried above the L line as well. It is common for fuel tanks to accidentally rupture during demolition work. It is unclear why the city is not looking at apartment buildings or demolition sites for the source of the leak. One such demolition site is a former Shell gas station, which coincidentally happens to be directly above the subway tunnel at the point it makes a bend from Metropolitan Avenue onto Bushwick Avenue.  

By the end of the fourth day of the spill, the MTA press office said there were no updates on the situation, referring to the statements made by Warren the previous day. Later that night, when MTA workers above Graham Avenue were asked if there was any progress, one shook his head slowly.

“Nothing,” he said.

Not Toxic in Any way?

But for the city and state’s lack of resolution in locating the origin of the spill, its employees mounted a valiant effort to keep the L tunnel ventilated. On Thursday evening, MTA Emergency Response was on-site working at Graham. On top of the two sidewalk subway vents on either side of Metropolitan Avenue, diesel-powered industrial fans expelled air from the tunnel. Two emergency exit hatches at Lorimer Street Station were also opened, although the two emergency hatches between the stations remained closed.

In the late night, when L train service was suspended for planned work, the cleanup response was kicked into overdrive. Multiple crews worked above and below ground tirelessly. Inside the station, crews power hosed the roadbed and laid down “Oil-Dri” absorbent blankets to remove oil-stricken water from the station.  

Despite assurances from its chief safety officer that the tunnel is “not toxic in any way” the MTA contracted with the hazardous waste disposal company ACV Enviro to assist in the cleanup and to take away the waste. By 2 a.m. early Friday morning, ACV Enviro had three trucks stationed outside Graham labeled “hazardous waste hauling vehicle.”  

“We’re not allowed to take pictures of anything,” said one MTA worker. “We’re not even allowed to have electronics.”

Riders on Edge

Exiting the Canarsie-bound platform at Graham Avenue Thursday evening with his four children, ages two through nine, Andrew B. said he did not believe the tunnel was safe despite the MTA’s assurances.   

“Are you going to wait until someone dies?” he asked of the agency. “Or are you going to make the work order, shut the tunnel, find the problem and fix it?”  

Sitting at a wooden bench on the same platform with her cane in hand, Marcela Silva, 50, said she was “really pissed off.”

“I know it’s not healthy for me or anyone for that matter, especially not people with a weak immune system,” Silva, who is currently undergoing chemotherapy, said. “No one should be inhaling petroleum-based products in closed spaces with low airflow.”  

Danny Pearlstein, policy and communications director for Riders Alliance, said the spill raises questions about Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s insistence on keeping the L running while the MTA makes post-Superstorm Sandy repairs this spring.

‘Are you going to wait until someone dies?’

At a press conference in early January, the governor, flanked by a pair of Ivy League engineers, said the expected shutdown was unnecessary thanks to new European technology. Rather than running additional trains on other lines and providing shuttle buses to mitigate the shutdown, service is now expected to only be suspended at night and on weekends.

Cuomo earned kudos from commuters, but it turns out the MTA had already explored a plan similar to the governor’s in 2014 and rejected it over safety concerns.

At the time, MTA engineers warned that keeping the L operational risks exposing riders and workers to silica dust, which can lead to lung disease. Critics have also raised cost and durability concerns over Cuomo’s plan.  

“Ultimately, the fact that something surprising, unpleasant and potentially dangerous occurred amid construction on the L line should give the governor pause about canceling the mitigation plan of additional subway and priority bus service,” said Pearlstein.

Speaking with reporters on Thursday outside Transport Hall, Tony Utano, president of Transit Workers Union Local 100, expressed outrage at the response to the oil spill. “The L-train situation is completely unacceptable,” he said. “The air still stinks and we are concerned about long-term exposure and the health of our members working eight-hour shifts along the line.”

He added: “If the situation is not abated over the weekend we will take further action to protect the safety of our members and that of the riding public.”

Neither the governor’s nor the mayor’s office responded to requests for comment on this article.


Photo: MTA employees laboring to manage the airflow near the Graham Avenue subway station on Thursday. Credit: Leonardo March.