Castle Hill park riddled with contaminants

Castle Hill Homeowner's Association president Izzy Morales outside the fenced-off park

Castle Hill Homeowner's Association president Izzy Morales outside the fenced-off park

It had taken three years for Izzy Morales to get city officials to pay attention to the contaminated soil at Pugsley Creek, a riverfront park across the street from his house in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx. But an eight-foot high fence was not what he was expecting.

The president of the Castle Hill homeowners’ association was walking his dog one morning in early September when he came across five workmen erecting the fence and digging holes in soil the city park department had warned was contaminated with mercury, lead and cadmium in 2007.

With this dangerous soil flying about in the neighborhood’s ever-present wind, Morales called a rally and invited local politicians. Shortly afterwards, the project halted, and the community has heard nothing since.

“We are concerned for our health, our kids’ health and our property,” said Morales, who has lived in the suburban neighborhood with this wife and three children for nine years. “Kids run in [the dirt] and take that stuff back home.”

But the potential health risks are not the only concerns playing on the minds of Morales and others in the Castle Hill community. Residents first heard about the contamination when the parks department gave a presentation to Community Board 9 in June 2007. Since then, the community has heard nothing, said Morales. “Why not inform the home owners around the park?” he asked. “Communities who live near parks should be kept abreast.”

The 77-acre park is encircled by the Castle Hill and Clason Point neighborhoods and meets the East River. In the 1950s, the riverfront area was known as the Castle Hill Beach Club and until the 1970s parts of the salt marsh were reclaimed by placing soil over construction material.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s vacant lots and waterfront areas became dumping grounds, said Francisco Gonzales, district manager for the community board. “No one 50, 60 years ago was watching and worrying about the future contamination,” he said.

The testing, carried out on the behalf of the city park department during 2006, revealed hot spots that contain higher than state recommended levels of mercury, lead and cadmium for residential areas. In a few spots, the mercury levels are more than three times what is recommended; for lead it is almost double. According to the parks department, exposure to the soil could be a health risk if it was ingested regularly. The contaminants in the soil have been linked to the dumping of batteries, pipes and paint, according to the 2007 parks department presentation.

“Since then they’ve done nothing,” said Kenneth Padilla, the former chair of the board’s parks committee. “They’ve just basically ignored our repeated requests.” Padilla and his unofficial vice-chair, recent Green state assembly candidate Walter Nestler, were not reappointed to the Community Board in June. As of the last meeting, the Parks Committee remains without a chair, frustrating Morales’ attempts to spur Board action on the matter.

For Morales, a retired community worker for the city Department of Sanitation, it was unacceptable for work on the park to begin without informing residents. It is not that he is against the planned restoration of the salt marsh, he said, but he wants to know it will be carried out safely. “No one is answering those questions, even though we keep on asking,” he said. “We don’t want nothing moving until we know what’s going on.”

The salt marsh restoration project at Pugsley Creek is part of a $247 million Bronx park beautification and improvement initiative. The money was set aside by the city as compensation for the construction of a water filtration plant in Van Cortlandt park, after community members filed a lawsuit to have it stopped. Estimated to cost more than $1.7 million, the salt marsh restoration work will include the excavation of soil that had been placed over the wetland and the planting of native trees and grasses.

A spokesperson for the contractor, Calvin Brothers and Manhue Contracting, declined to comment on the project, referring all media requests to the city parks department. In a written statement, a spokesperson for the department stated that the only work the contractor was authorized to carry out was to erect fencing around the park.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation had said it was safe to re-use the contaminated soil underneath pathways and other covered areas, the statement read. However, at the request of the community board the soil will be removed entirely and disposed off-site. A community meeting was promised “once the procedural plan has been finalized and approved,” it read.

Morales said he not only wants to see a plan for the remediation of the contaminated soil,  but also the testing of houses in the neighborhood before and after the work is completed.

“We work hard to get a home, and your surrounding area is your investment,” he said. “I think other New Yorkers would look at this and say this is not right.”

Additional reporting by Brent Ardaugh

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