Is Radiac Radioactive?

| 16 Feb 2015 | 06:05

    John tells me that he doesn't check his Geiger counter anymore. His daughter dangles from the railing on the stoop of their Grand St. apartment building near the Williamsburg waterfront. Trucks blow down Kent Ave., pedestrians wander toward the Grand St. ferry park for a lunch on the East River; we both look toward his neighbor, Radiac Research Corporation. It's a hot, gray afternoon in New York City's chosen home for radioactive waste.

    "More than a few feet away, you don't get a reading," John says, referring to the sealed drums of waste rolled off of Radiac trucks into their warehouse. He smiles; it's clear that residual radiation doesn't worry him all that much. The waste Radiac stores, largely clinical and therapeutic trash coming from hospitals and universities, falls under the qualification "low-level."

    A Radiac employee appears at the steel door of the low, box-shaped building. We can see him through the chainlink fence that bounds the parking lot. He has the appearance of a federal employee circa 1986: short-sleeved Oxford, wire-frame glasses, digital wristwatch. He's smoking and looking in our direction.

    John's lived here on and off since 1979. He's an engineer. He's developed a yacht that can resist the effects of waves. His other neighbors are artists, machinists, retired sugar workers, antique dealers, filmmakers, gallery owners. One block over, there's a park and an elementary school, P.S. 84, that houses more than 900 students. The Watchperson Project, a local environmental group, estimates that 12,000 people live within a half-mile radius of N. 1st St.?that's one block north of Radiac, within the breeze of a soft wind on a day like today.

    Williamsburg does not embrace Radiac with open arms. A residents' group, the Williamsburg Around the Bridge Block Association, sued to block Radiac's permit to store and transport this waste. The lawsuit named the New York State Dept. of Environmental Conservation, the agency that issued the permit, and Radiac as defendants. The neighbors lost. Radiac has been in operation ever since.

    "We're struggling against the power plants," says Gino Maldonado, spokesman for El Puente, a group that rallied against Radiac in the early 90s. "I don't know why they look at this neighborhood so much. This is a polluted community."

    Neighborhood activists are currently focused on the 1100 megawatt TransGas facility proposed for N. 12th and Kent, and the 79 megawatt power-generating barge proposed near Division St. and Kent on the far southside. For many residents, Radiac provides a bitter reminder of what many see as the environmental injustices suffered by Williamsburg and Greenpoint.


    Until recently, I'd thought of Radiac as a fact of life. I've lived in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge for years now, proudly drinking the tap water, soaking up ultraviolet rays and particulate matter on summer afternoons; I've even taken to gasping jogs alongside the major trucking routes. If I've thought anything about it, I've felt I was getting stronger, redefining my human constitution toward something more urban, less organic.

    I've been passing Radiac every day for more than two years. My running route brings me through the waterfront neighborhoods stretching from the Williamsburg Bridge to the Greenpoint border along Wythe St. and Kent Ave., the area that stands at the center of the plan drawn up by the community. This plan represents a comprehensive re-zoning of the waterfront, a move that would allow more residential development alongside the existing base of manufacturers.

    Shortly after 7 a.m., the commercial trucks have already started to accumulate on Kent, barreling down Grand St. and Metropolitan Ave., two major thoroughfares from the BQE and the rest of Brooklyn and Queens. People walk their dogs, run, take their children to school around the same time. Now and again, one of the local prostitutes is at the end of her night, retreating from the sun. Many of the small factories have been at work for hours and, depending on the day, the breeze can range from sugary to noxious.

    Radiac comes up at the tail end of my run. What I see of it is through their open garage on Kent. The main entrance sits on the other side of a fence, a parking area separating it from Grand St. Several times, as the jocular staff unloads empty barrels across the sidewalk, I have found myself dodging through. Generally, I just look inside to see if anyone is around. Even if I didn't know the garage belonged to Radiac, their pink and white trucks would give it away. "Radiac" is spelled out in a font I associate with claymation Christmas specials from my childhood. One of their semis has a solid white raccoon tail dangling from the rearview mirror.

    After the embassy bombings in Africa in 1998, a cop was posted outside of Radiac 24 hours a day. I sat down with an official from the 90th Precinct a few weeks ago and asked him why this was no longer the case, particularly after Sept. 11. Radiac's been receiving "special attention" from the precinct, he responded stiffly, and that's all he would say.


    The woman who answers the phone at Radiac delivers those three syllables in a classic Brooklyn accent. I find that comforting somehow. After a half-dozen calls requesting an interview with her boss, she asked me to fax my questions.

    John V. Tekin Jr., environmental scientist with Radiac, responded. Tekin pointed out a few important things: Radiac's waste typically consists of "trash, paper, plastic, and linens that have come in contact with radioisotopes." The facility can only store this waste for six months before shipping it to an out-of-state processing facility. While at the facility, it must remain sealed at all times. Radiac does not accept waste from nuclear power plants. A university like Columbia is permitted to store greater amounts of waste, under less controlled conditions, for longer periods of time.

    Addressing my core question, Tekin writes: "Radiac has always had security measures in place to prevent the entry of unauthorized personnel. Radiac has also met with Federal, State, and Local officials to review our security measures that are in place." He questioned the premise of my inquiry. "Is it necessary to put radioactive garbage under 24-hour surveillance? If so, should we have guards in the storage rooms at each university, hospital, and laboratory that stores the same waste prior to them throwing it in with their trash and giving it to Radiac?"

    The New York State Dept. of Environmental Conservation answers Tekin's question directly in Section 383-14.2 (d: parts 1 & 3) of its Official Compilation of Codes, Rules, and Regulations of the State of New York. To paraphrase: Yes, it is necessary to have 24-hour remote surveillance of the site, as well as 24-hour security staff.

    In April of 2000, Briscoe Protective Systems, Inc. successfully sued Radiac for breach of contract. The lawsuit states that security equipment was never installed and Briscoe never began monitoring the facility as state regulations require. A source at the EPA?Radiac isn't directly regulated by the EPA?tells me now that yes, Radiac is in compliance.

    "The real danger is if there is a fire," Mary Ziegler, cofounder of the environmental group the Williamsburg Watch told me over the phone. "It would send a radioactive plume throughout the neighborhood." She was equally concerned with a second Radiac facility around the corner on S. 1st. that stores hazardous chemicals. That facility, closer to P.S. 84, stores things like the 20 barrels of potassium cyanide Radiac picked up in the Bronx in May 2000.

    The story of that potassium cyanide is intriguing. It turned up in the bushes along Pugsley Ave., dumped from a truck stolen from Magic Transport, Inc., a trucking company in Linden, NJ. Seventy homes were evacuated before Radiac rolled in and picked up the cargo. News reports at the time made references to terrorists' use of potassium cyanide; this was discounted by local cops and city officials.


    Despite the environmental woes of Williamsburg?besides Radiac, you can find a sewage treatment plant, multiple waste transfer facilities, a power generator and the site of an underground oil spill?the residential housing market has exploded. A walk south on Bedford Ave. from the N. 7th St. L stop tells the story of a changed neighborhood: cafes, bookstores, health food stores where warehouses and derelict factories had been only a few years before.

    More subtle signs can be seen in residential real estate development. The notion of purchasing a home in Williamsburg may have been counterintuitive a decade ago, but as rents rose in the mid-to-late 90s, demand emerged. On Broadway, just south of the Williamsburg Bridge, the refurbished Smith Gray building offers luxury lofts for just over $700,000. The Esquire building, a rehabbed shoe-polish factory, houses 74 condos, overlooking the East River and, directly below, Radiac.

    In an ironic twist, Robert Moses may turn out to be the savior of the Williamsburg/Greenpoint waterfront. At a recent community board meeting, an official from the Greenpoint Waterfront Association for Parks & Planning spelled out how Moses, aiming to protect Williamsburg/Greenpoint industrial sites, sited the BQE deeper into the borough than in any other neighborhood along the East River. Where the BQE effectively blocks waterfront access throughout the rest of the borough, Williamsburg and Greenpoint have large, increasingly residential neighborhoods: call it the East Riviera.

    Efforts to redefine this neighborhood, including playing fields for NYU and state park land, face stiff opposition from companies like TransGas and NISA, but with renewed interest from the Pataki and Bloomberg administrations, residential Williamsburg/Greenpoint may have a shot.


    I went back to Radiac to speak with the neighbors. I sat across the street, on a corner that reeked of piss, and tried not to lean against the wall. In half an hour of swatting flies I watched a single patrol car from the 90th Precinct pull a U-turn a short way off. I think that's illegal. I walked a few doors down from Radiac to an open garage. Several antique cars, their innards exposed, tools strewn around them, could be seen from the street. A dignified, if rusted, Packard was suspended a few feet from the ground. The workshop was typical Williamsburg: understated, almost implausible and fascinating. I introduced myself to the boss, David Reina, who manufactures machines that make paper pulp. He makes things that make things. I've seen him tinkering with these cars on Saturdays, but never stopped to ask. It's a hobby, he told me; he doesn't restore cars, he just tries to get them functioning. I saw an awkward metaphor in this for the future of Williamsburg. When I asked him about Radiac, he smiled and offered a familiar view.

    "We wish it wasn't here, but it was here before us."