Wolff-Alport Chemical Company Demolished For Cleanup

 




It was a quiet afternoon, just over a month ago, when I set out to explore one of New York City's last remaining Superfund sites—a relic from an era when the city played a clandestine role in nuclear weapons production. This long-abandoned facility, hidden within the urban sprawl, had been slated for demolition for years, yet it stood stubbornly untouched until now.


My journey took me to the terminus of Irving Avenue, where it meets Moffat Street. Here, amidst a subtle curve, lay a surprisingly tranquil industrial pocket—an urban explorer’s dream. The lack of foot traffic and the general stillness of the area made it an ideal spot for discreet investigation.


Standing before the site, I was tempted to scale the tall green barriers that marked its perimeter. These fences, familiar from countless other urban explorations, usually posed little deterrent. But this location was different. The threat here wasn't merely physical; it was radiological. The site was contaminated with radioactive isotopes, remnants of its past life in nuclear production—a stark reminder of the invisible dangers that lurk in forgotten places.


Despite the allure of what lay beyond the fence, I hesitated. The risk of radiation exposure, even for a short duration, was a gamble I wasn’t willing to take. Unlike the asbestos-laden buildings I had previously explored, the stakes here felt palpably higher. Asbestos exposure, while insidious, operated on a slower, more predictable timeline. Radiation, on the other hand, presented an immediate and uncertain threat.


In the end, discretion won out over curiosity. The site’s history and its hazardous present were enough to keep me on the safe side of the fence. Sometimes, as an urban explorer, the most valuable skill is knowing when to walk away. After all, even in the pursuit of forgotten histories and hidden spaces, one must pick their battles wisely.







From the early 1920s until 1954, the Wolff-Alport Chemical Company in Ridgewood, Queens, operated as an unassuming industrial facility. It imported monazite sand from the Belgian Congo and extracted rare earth metals, a process integral to numerous technological advancements. However, lurking beneath this veneer of progress was a hazardous secret: monazite contains approximately 6-8% thorium, uranium, and radium. As these elements decay, they produce radon-220, a radioactive gas known as thoron, which can linger in the air and pose significant health risks.


Thoron emanates from surfaces where thorium-232 is present. Its decay products remain airborne, and inhalation of these particles can cause severe damage to DNA and body tissues, increasing cancer risk over time. Until 1947, Wolff-Alport disposed of thorium waste recklessly, dumping it into the sewer system and possibly burying it on the property. Decades later, this negligence continues to haunt the site and its surroundings.


In 1987, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) alerted the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYCDOHMH), the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about potential radiological contamination at the Wolff-Alport site. An initial survey in 1988 by the EPA and NYCDOHMH found contamination levels to be within regulatory limits of the time. However, this assessment would not mark the end of the story.


In 2007, a citywide radiation assessment revealed elevated levels of radiation at the Wolff-Alport site. Subsequent investigations funded by the EPA’s Brownfields program from 2009 to 2010 confirmed the presence of radiological contamination on the property and in the nearby sewer system. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) conducted a health consultation in 2012, identifying potential health risks to on-site workers and pedestrians on Irving Avenue due to the contamination.


Faced with these alarming findings, the EPA took decisive action. Between 2012 and 2014, the agency implemented several measures to mitigate immediate risks. Concrete, lead, and steel shielding were installed in three of the site’s buildings and along the adjacent Irving Avenue sidewalk. Additionally, a layer of crushed rock was placed over the former railroad spur portion of the site. A radon mitigation system was also installed in one of the buildings with high radon levels.







After years of litigation and protracted tenant relocation, the long-anticipated demolition of the site has finally occurred. Legal battles and tenant cooperation had delayed the demolition order since 2018, with the last few businesses vacating the property as recently as September 2023.


This site, now reduced to rubble, once bustled with diverse activities. It housed a delicatessen grocery, office spaces, residential apartments, several auto-repair shops, and warehousing facilities. Tucked behind these buildings lay an unpaved strip of land, a remnant of a bygone era when a rail spur used to store automobiles—its existence verified through satellite data.


In an unexpected twist, the site gained notoriety during the COVID-19 pandemic. A rave party was held here, unbeknownst to the organizers and attendees that the venue was a potentially hazardous radioactive site. Sheriff deputies, after a stakeout at the warehouse, arrested three individuals and dispersed the unaware ravers, who had been blissfully oblivious to the dangers of partying on a radiological superfund site.


After years of contention and painstaking efforts, the former nuclear weapons facility, once a dark emblem of industrial secrecy, has finally been demolished. This site, notorious for processing rare earth metals, had long cast a shadow over the surrounding community with allegations of egregious environmental misconduct. Reports suggested that the facility disposed of toxic sludge waste into the city's sewer system, while other hazardous materials were clandestinely buried on-site.


Now, as the dust of demolition settles, the cleanup process is slowly but surely underway. The city is poised to address the remnants of contamination, aiming to remediate the sewers and sidewalks that have silently borne the brunt of the facility’s operations. This meticulous restoration effort is a beacon of hope for returning the property to its rightful owners, a step toward healing the community's fractured relationship with its environment.




Demolished sometime between April to May 2024. 






Sources:



1. Pozarcycki, R. (2022, March 6). Radioactive rave: COVIDiot party at Queens Superfund site shut down by sheriff. amNY.

2. Maldonado, S. (2024, Feburary 16). Demolishing a Chemical Company’s Radioactive Past in Ridgewood, Queens. The City.

3. Maldonado, S. (2023, September 6). Last Businesses Exit From Queens Superfund Site. The City.

4. Feldman, E. (2022, April 22). New York City now has four Superfund sites. Where are they?. Spectrum News NY1.

5. Troutman, H. (2023, June 5). Radioactive Waste From Old Queens Chemical Plant To Be Cleaned By City. Patch.

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