Oil-leak cleanup fuels concerns of N.Y.U. tenants

By Albert Amateau

The cleanup of about 10,000 gallons of heating oil remaining in the soil from the December 2009 leak from two tanks under Washington Square Village is scheduled to begin, weather permitting, on Jan. 5, 2011.

An advisory committee of Washington Square Village residents, Community Board 2 members and representatives of elected officials, as well as New York University executives and the cleanup contractors, will be walking through the site in front of Washington Square Village buildings Numbers 3 and 4 on Bleecker St.

“We anticipate that the cleanup will take three to four months, weather permitting,” said Gary Parker, N.Y.U. director of government and community affairs.

The Dec. 26, 2009, leak from the two tanks put about 16,000 gallons of No. 6 heating oil into the boiler room and ground beneath the landscaped area between the university-owned residential complex and the sidewalk.

About 5,000 gallons were removed in an emergency cleanup soon after the leak, Parker recalled. Preparing for the deeper cleanup included devising a plan, getting it approved by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and engaging certified contractors, Parker said. D.E.C. approved the cleanup plan in September.

Nevertheless, the Washington Square Village Tenants Association’s environmental committee will be keeping a close eye on the process, said Judy Magida, co-chairperson of the committee with Barbara Backer.

While N.Y.U. has made public an extensive report to D.E.C. outlining remediation plans, tenants have told the university they want a hotline system of communication that residents can use in emergencies.

“This was totally lacking when the original oil spill happened, leaving residents uninformed and apprehensive,” the tenant leaders said, regarding a hotline.

The work will entail the removal and cleaning of the two 20,000-gallon underground storage tanks and an excavation to a depth of 30 feet to remove oil-contaminated soil, according to documents.

The extended project site, bounded by Mercer, W. Third and Bleecker Sts. and LaGuardia Place, will require closing of a lane of Bleecker St. and protection of infrastructure. A Con Edison electrical vault and cables are adjacent to and above the two tanks. Moreover, the underground Minetta Stream is about 1,200 feet north of the site and flows west to the Hudson River.

Contaminated water and earth will be containerized for removal, and while uncontaminated earth may be used as backfill, the top 4 feet of the excavation must be new soil, according to documents. Underpinning and support of the adjacent buildings will be a critical element of the job.

The D.E.C.-approved plan specifies the contractor use certified dust-control procedures and provide odor control. N.Y.U. will also monitor vibrations and ground movement in the buildings adjacent to the excavation, and if they exceed allowable standards, alternative methods will be used.

“We’ve been living on top of this soil for a year,” said the tenants association leaders in an e-mail to residents. “How will we be protected from fugitive dust emissions and organic vapors? The air quality in the hallways of the buildings was periodically monitored during the emergency cleanup but has not been monitored since,” the letter says.

The association is also worried about the buildings’ stability.