May 9, 2019 By Laura Hanrahan
A noxious petroleum gasoline smell that has been plaguing north Greenpoint residents for months appears to be emanating from the sewer system, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
Representatives from the state agency spoke during a Tuesday night meeting in Greenpoint, organized by local advocacy group North Brooklyn Neighbors, to address the problem that some residents say has left them feeling sick.
The petroleum smell, which appears to be largely localized to Freeman and Green Streets, between McGuinness Boulevard and Manhattan Avenue, is most noticeable early in the morning and in the evening. Residents say they can often smell it both from inside their homes and when walking around in the area.
One man, a resident of 214 Green St., says he reported the smell to DEC several months ago. Wanting to know exactly what he was breathing in, he decided to pay for an air analysis. The results confirmed his suspicion that is was fresh gasoline.
Mary Cinader, a resident of Freeman Street, says that both she and her dog have become ill from the fumes, which she began reporting to 311 in February. Cinader says she often experiences headaches, dizziness, loss of balance and a scratchy throat, and has had to seek out medical specialists to help treat her symptoms.
She has been in contact with several city and state agencies, including the New York State DEC, New York State Department of Health (DOH), New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) and New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). While she says many of the DEP inspectors she has dealt with have been more than helpful, she has grown increasingly frustrated with inconsistent vapor findings, particularly on the part of the state agencies.
“I no longer trust the very people that are supposed to be protecting our health,” Cinader said. “DEP and DOB were in my home today and DOB said ‘It smells like horrible gasoline smells in here. DEP why aren’t you writing that citation?’ And DEP said ‘We don’t smell it.’”
A DEP spokesperson says they are working on the investigation with DEC.
Cinader says the state agencies try to downplay her concerns and make it seem like she is overreacting.
“I’ve been told it’s the owner’s [landlord’s] fault because he needs to update the plumbing,” Cinader said. “So that’s when I went on foot and I got about 40 names [of other residents]. They have vapors in their basement, second floor, third floor. Our vapors match between 5 and 7 a.m., then again in the evening. So we’ve got it down to a science.”
Cinader says she has been given fans and ventilators from DEC and was put up in a hotel several times by DOH due to the fumes.
Lifelong Greenpoint resident Laura Hoffman has also been collecting data on the fumes, and put together a map of houses that have been invaded with the petroleum odor. To date, 18 different buildings in the two block area have been added to the map.
According to DEC Special Assistant Rodney Rivera, who attended the Tuesday night meeting, the agency began looking into the issue in early March. The investigation, which remains ongoing, started on Green Street and then moved to Freeman Street after additional complaints were filed by residents there.
Rivera says that the agency’s best guess, at this point, is that there was a petroleum gas spill from a construction-related accident that made its way into the sewer system. However, illegal dumping or a leak from a nearby gas station have not yet been ruled out as possibilities.
“We haven’t been able to pinpoint and say it’s this gas station or it’s this specific individual that’s doing that,” Rivera said. “That investigation is ongoing, it’s not always easy to catch somebody in the act of an actual physical dumping.”
A spokesperson for DEC said the agency’s spills response experts are also continuing to conduct a comprehensive investigation and have also found a link to the sewer system. They have begun to take steps to mitigate the smell.
“Crews performed visual inspections and conducted air monitoring,” the spokesperson said. “The majority of air testing results revealed low-level background readings typically found in a sewer system. An evaluation of the results determined that accumulated sediment and debris restricting flow in the sewer contained a petroleum product. The sewer system was flushed using a pressurized water line to remove sediment and debris and restore flow. DEC continues to monitor the situation to ensure public health and the environment are protected.”
While the flushing helped to reduce the odors, Rivera said, it has not solved the problem entirely.
Rivera did offer an explanation for the smell’s peaks during the morning and evening—that’s when the sewer system is being used the most.
He asked that all residents who experience the fumes report it to 311 every single time they smell it, so that an official record can be kept.
“We’re trying to understand how deep this issue goes,” Rivera said.
North Brooklyn Neighbors is asking residents to report their experiences through an online form, so that they can better advocate for the neighborhood.