Many in Whitestone have been outraged at the state Department of Environmental Conservation in recent months for its handling of the brownfield cleanup at the Waterpointe property by the East River. And when neighborhood residents met with agency officials last Thursday night at a neighborhood church, they held nothing back.
“To me, this looks like either gross incompetence or a complete cover-up,” We Love Whitestone Civic Association President Alfredo Centola said. “And I’m not one to mince words and with all due respect, I’m telling you what it looks like.”
The Waterpointe site, located at 151-45 Sixth Road, is where the Edgestone Group plans to build 52 single-family homes. Each would have a subslab depressurization system capable of detecting and treating harmful vapor in the location’s soil.
The developer gets tax credits for conducting the brownfield cleanup under the purview of the DEC, which issued a completion certificate for the remediation in December.
Last Thursday night’s meeting was the second of two informal public availability sessions. One was held earlier in the day. The discussion centered on the cleanup track change that the DEC announced last September.
Without notifying the community to seek input about the possibility of doing the change first, the DEC issued an “Explanation of Significant Difference” fact sheet declaring the remediation would be changed from Track 2 unrestricted residential to the less environmentally stringent Track 4 restricted residential.
According to DEC regulations, nine factors must be considered when picking a specific remedy to use in a brownfield cleanup. One of them, Whitestone resident Robert LoScalzo pointed out, is “community acceptance.”
“What do you have in the record that shows that you even attempted to assess the community’s interest in this track 4?” he asked. “What did you do to find out the community reaction to the track 4 before you made the decision?”
DEC official Sally Dewes explained that when the agency made the track change, it considered the move a “minor” one that required the agency to only publish the “Explanation of Significant Difference” fact sheet.
“We’re not required when we do an explanation of significant difference to hold a public meeting or reach out for public comment,” DEC attorney Andrew Guglielmi said. “But in retrospect, realizing how much the community was interested in what was going at that site, we should have, we should’ve taken public comment on that site.”
Before the meeting, LoScalzo had extensively reviewed documents about the cleanup. In 2011, he discovered, the DEC was aware of soil vapor at the site of a quality that is inconsistent with Track 2 unrestricted residential, so the remediation process would have to be changed.
“But the community doesn’t hear anything about a change in the remedy until the issuance of the ESD in September of 2017, six years later,” LoScalzo said.
In response, DEC Division of Environmental Remediation regional bureau director Gerard Burke pointed to how the DEC hadn’t been overseeing Edgestone’s cleaup of the project at that time. Before the developer took over, a firm called the Bayrock Group — which filed for bankruptcy — owned it.
“There is a little bit of a thing that’s being left out: the original developer went bankrupt and got put into a receivership and we’ve been working with the guy who came in to take over,” Burke said.
The fact sheet the DEC used to explain the brownfield program change said that people could go to the Whitestone Library to seek documents about the decision to switch tracks. But as LoScalzo and Centola would find out, the library didn’t have any documents about it.
“You guys were immediately notified that nothing was at the library,” the We Love Whitestone leader said.
Burke apologized about the documents not being there.
LoScalzo remarked that he thought it was “scandalous that you guys don’t take advantage of the internet” when it comes to in-depth information about the cleanup.
According to DEC Region 2 Special Assistant Rodney Rivera, the agency’s web system “doesn’t have the capacity to house every single project document of the hundreds of thousands of projects that we have.”
LoScalzo also brought up the fact that a letter he sent the DEC in October with a list of questions to the agency but never received a response to them. Burke apologized for it.
Years before the track change was announced last September, the Waterpointe development had been highly controversial.
The Bayrock Group had obtained a special permit from the city in 2008 to build the 52 single-family homes, which Edgestone signed on to do after buying the lot.
But the developer later decided it wanted to build 107 townhouses instead, igniting outrage from many in Whitestone, before reversing course back to the original plan.
Vickie Paladino, a neighborhood resident running in a Republican primary race for state Sen. Tony Avella’s seat, excoriated the Waterpointe development plan before the DEC officials Thursday night.
“The bottom line is: We don’t want 52 more houses here in Whitestone,” she said.
But Centola and Greater Whitestone Taxpayers Association President Kim Cody pushed back on her statement. “This is better than the alternative,” Centola said.
Avella (D-Bayside) had attended the first public availability session in the afternoon. Along with Assemblyman Daniel Rosenthal (D-Flushing), the senator recently secured two provisions from Edgestone for the Waterpointe development
Along with the developer agreeing to bring virgin soil to the site so that future Waterpointe residents can grow vegetables in gardens, it committed to allowing the homeowners association that would control the site to keep the funds placed in an escrow account for maintaining the subslab depressurization systems.