Big diesel spills likely to remain underneath bus depots for decades, experts say
The East New York Bus Depot is one many depots which have oil tanks which have leaked, contaminating the soil and groundwater. (Jefferson Siegel)
These fuel slicks are likely here to stay.
Almost two decades after the MTA discovered them, thousands of gallons of pollutants still lie in soil and groundwater beneath bus depots across the city from years of diesel spills.
It could take a century to mop up the largest spills, and the pumps can’t suck up all of the contaminants because they have mixed with the groundwater, according to environmental consultants.
And no matter how much diesel is removed, the health risks and damage to nearby waterways will remain for generations, said Walter Hang of Toxics Targeting, an environmental research company specializing in contaminants.
“It’s not trivial,” Hang said. “You are being exposed every single day if you live or work above a huge spill.”MTA’s dirty discovery
During the early 1990s, NYC Transit discovered leaks among fuel storage tanks underneath many of its bus depots. The total amount spilled is not known but the leaks were sizable, state officials said, with a total of 215,000 gallons of contaminants seeping under just the Mill Basin and Jamaica bus depots alone. Over the years, the spills from the two depots have spread onto nearby residential property.
The leaks haven’t been contained to land, however. In 1997, officials discovered that petroleum from one Bronx depot leaked into the freshwater Hutchinson River, which feeds a bay heavily used by boaters.
In 2001, NYC Transit agreed to clean up contamination at 32 facilities across the city. So far, workers have removed a total of 300,000 gallons of contaminants across those sites, and the MTA has spent at least $120 million to replace the leaking fuel storage tanks and clean the sites. The MTA is requesting $19 million for additional work in the next five years.Health dangers
Benzene and other chemicals in diesel are carcinogens that can cause leukemia and immune deficiency with prolonged exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The fumes can also cause dizziness and headaches.
“We used to smell the oil,” said Pauline O’Conner, 60, who still relies on seven medications to combat migraines she developed living next to the contaminated Flatbush Depot in Mill Basin. O’Connor has since moved to Staten Island.
However, MTA officials argue that the air around the depots presents no health risks to transit workers or nearby residents. City drinking water is from upstate, and a handful of wells tainted by the pollutants have been closed, officials said.Surprise for new neighbors
Residents who in recent years moved near the Jamaica depot were upset to find out recently from a reporter about the contamination. They say they said have eaten vegetables grown in the potentially polluted soil, though it has not made them sick.
Eventually, the bigger spills could flow to city waterways and threaten sea life, according to Hang.
“These spills are unbelievably huge,” he said.