Only the most recent in an increasing string of highly destructive events, Hurricane Ian brought now familiar scenes of upended buildings and electrical outages that are now familiar, but also an aerial perspective of pollution turning Florida waterways and the Gulf of Mexico a shade of “root beer.” This mix of sewage, fertilizer, fuel runoff, and more is just one flavor of the “toxic soup” such storms concoct. Chemicals dislodged from the industries that concentrate in waterfronts and low lying areas don’t just flow to waterways but poison relief workers and settle in nearby homes and soils. The resilience of industries large and small has great consequences for disaster preparedness and environmental justice.
In Sunset Park, Brooklyn, small industries provide essential services and livelihoods, and live cheek by jowl with housing and commerce A team of researchers has recently completed a project there to help autoworkers protect themselves, their employees, and their neighbors from chemical risks in extreme weather. In the wake of Sandy, the long-term, community based project — GRASP for short — has brought critical knowledge about risks of contamination and engaged local industries as partners in preparedness. Saritha Ramakrishna details how the project has put in practice a novel and necessary approach to resilience, and highlights the challenges to protecting vulnerable people and businesses in neighborhoods where extreme weather is not the only cause of a hostile climate. – MM
As the waters of Superstorm Sandy receded, they left behind heating oil from flooded apartment buildings, fuels leaking from the insides of freight trucks, and chemicals from New York City’s waterfront industrial work. These “fugitive chemicals” are the filmy, strange colors which have been documented in floodwaters inundating residential streets and homes in the aftermath of other major storms and hurricanes. In Louisiana, Hurricane Katrina left behind elevated levels of arsenic and lead in the soil. Sewage, lead, heavy metals, and other dangers circulated in the waters that remained in Houston’s front yards, swimming pools, and living rooms after Hurricane Harvey. As the climate changes and storms become increasingly frequent and severe, the risk of chemical dislodgement grows.
What accumulates in the “toxic soup” that congeals after major disasters is a reflection of a neighborhood’s historic land use, as well as its present industrial activity. The risk of chemical dislodgement is especially high in working waterfront communities, oftentimes low-income communities of color. A recent study describes that in cities across the nation, hazards posed by previous or historical industrial activity are not well accounted for or tracked by governments — making it difficult to fully characterize risk and exposure. The effects go beyond the days immediately after a storm event — contaminants carried by floodwater can remain embedded in soil. Health effects of chemical exposure are many: skin irritation, headaches, and nausea in the short term, and increased risks of chronic illness and cancer in the long term.
Two months following Sandy, residents and workers shared concerns about their potential exposure at a community forum in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood. Bordering the Upper New York Bay, Sunset Park is an immigrant community. Nineteenth century Irish, Polish and Norwegian immigrants were followed by newcomers from Puerto Rico early in the 20th Century, while Fujian Chinese, Mexican, and Latin American immigrants arrived in the 1980s and 1990s. Historically, the migrant groups who have called Sunset Park home worked in its industrial sector; blue collar jobs allowed immigrants without access to higher education the ability to make a living, though the neighborhood has borne the burden of pollution from industrial activities.
Sunset Park’s industrial waterfront legacy continues to shape the neighborhood. Here, even among restaurants and blocks of housing, industry is always in sight: Auto body shops border delis and apartment buildings; wholesale tile, plumbing and other building suppliers and glassware businesses can be found near homes, parks, schools, and daycares. Repair shops of all varieties for e-bikes, computers, and televisions are clustered near the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. Land west of the Expressway is a city-designated Industrial Business Zone (IBZ). Commercial trucking repair garages, a lot full of Department of Sanitation vehicles, and poultry and wholesale kitchen suppliers can be found between the expressway and the water. The raw materials for consumer-facing services, for the city’s buildings and infrastructure, and repair services for any number of goods can be observed along these streets. Industry is also critical for disaster recovery: freight for moving goods in and out of the city, waste hauling and processing, wholesale building supply shops for repairs and renovations.
Before Superstorm Sandy, city agencies were just beginning to address the threat of chemical contamination in this and other waterfront neighborhoods, despite the longtime industrial presence. The city’s climate policies and programs were largely concerned with sustainability and efforts to curb emissions, rather than resilience planning to protect neighborhoods from extreme weather. Sandy arrived when resilience was still somewhat theoretical, and its real-world manifestations little explored. In the aftermath of Sandy, Dr. Ramya Chari, a public health and policy scholar at the RAND Corporation, was reading media reports when she came across a press release from the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (NYC-EJA) calling for a more detailed look at the public health effects of the storm in waterfront areas: what chemical exposures had occurred, and what the risks might be.
Even prior to Sandy’s arrival, NYC-EJA had been highlighting the risks of flooding in the city’s Significant Maritime and Industrial Areas (SMIAs: Sunset Park, Newtown Creek, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Red Hook, the South Bronx and Staten Island’s North Shore) through its Waterfront Justice Project. Largely occupied by low-income, communities of color, SMIAs contain bulk oil and chemical storage sites, and facilities required to report to the EPA due to their handling of materials potentially toxic to human health. NYC-EJA advocated for changes in the city’s waterfront revitalization program — to add protective regulatory measures within the SMIAs, while also protecting historically industrially zoned areas from displacement due to commercial and residential development. In the aftermath of the storm, UPROSE, a community-based environmental justice group in Sunset Park, and NYC-EJA also advised a city-led study focused on amending zoning code requirements for Open Industrial Uses, which hadn’t been changed since 1961, despite the increasingly prevalent threat of displacement and dislodgement of hazardous materials.
Dr. Chari’s outreach to NYC-EJA began a years-long collaboration. Project GRASP, or Grassroots Research to Action in Sunset Park, would come to involve UPROSE, NYC-EJA, the RAND Corporation, and the LifeLine Group, a nonprofit specializing in chemical exposure and risk assessment. The project focused on the health effects posed by toxic exposures for recovery workers and how different preventative measures could mitigate risk. The second phase of collaboration focused on auto repair shops and best practices for chemical storage and resilience to floods and extreme weather. Though they could have chosen any of the many industries present in the neighborhood, auto shops were the choice because of their ubiquity in Sunset Park, their nature as small, family-owned businesses, and the types of chemicals found in shops.
According to Juan Camilo Osorio, who was Director of Research at NYC-EJA when the project was initiated, “these are the only efforts in place . . . to try to understand what happened after Sandy in this regard. To this day there hasn’t been a comprehensive long-term, public health analysis of what actually happened after the storm.” The new thinking behind GRASP reflected critical changes in climate and environmental advocacy. Environmental justice organizations and industry had historically been on opposing sides of the negotiating table, resilience for working waterfront communities had not yet been meaningfully broached, and thinking around what could constitute a “just transition” for workers in polluting industries was only nascent. Osorio notes that GRASP came at a time where organizations focused on labor and those dedicated to environmental justice and environmental protection began to work together, resulting in events like the 2014 People’s Climate March.
As part of this developing framework, organizers directly reached out to members of the industrial sector. The study represents a shift in how scientists understand the communities under their proverbial magnifying glass. “Until recently, the idea that scientists work collaboratively with community leaders was not seen as a true good professional goal for a scientist. I’m sure it was reciprocated from the other side. There was never a culture where people could work together,” says Chris Chaisson, Director of the LifeLine Group. “We wanted to figure out how to provide them with the resources necessary and best management practices so they could become climate adaptable, protect themselves, their workers, and know what kind of chemicals they were dealing with,” said UPROSE’s Executive Director, Elizabeth Yeampierre at an event celebrating the conclusion of the project earlier this year.
However, this type of collaboration was not without its own frictions. GRASP researchers conducted in-person outreach to 83 auto-related businesses around Sunset Park; 15 participated in data collection, and four attended small group meetings. Naively, researchers believed that they could simply procure a chemical inventory from participating businesses to evaluate contamination risk. They soon realized that business owners and workers may not have the information themselves and did not have the time to take stock of their chemicals, or the ability to allow scientists into their shops during long working hours. The research team ultimately relied on photographs and public information about chemicals they knew to be present based on the images and site visits. Covid-19 also complicated matters for the researchers and for the businesses, whose financial precarity was exacerbated by the pandemic.
Researchers and business owners created an analysis of the potential chemical exposures that could result from a typical small auto shop. They found that waste — including dissembled car parts, used batteries and trash — and business electronics were critical potential contributors to fugitive chemicals. If subsumed during a flood event, these sources could potentially expose workers and nearby residents to lead and brominated flame retardants. The GRASP team produced a resilience toolkit for owners: a website and poster with best practices to adapt shops for flooding and storms. Some of these reiterate what is already mandated by laws enforced by New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation: for example, the safe disposal of hazardous materials. Other recommendations go beyond existing standards and require greater investments of time and money, from creating comprehensive inventory reports to ensuring that floors don’t slope towards exits, or constructing flood walls, berms or trenches to manage floodwaters.
On the corner of 26th Street and Fourth Avenue, the smell of oil and paint lingers in the hot summer air. Two mechanics stare into the open hood of a car, which bears TLC license plates, as their customer waits nearby. New Honeywell Auto Repair & Body Shop is one of the many auto-related businesses in Sunset Park. Like many in the neighborhood, the shop is small and cramped. Barrels of waste oil are stacked up against, and canisters of paint, antifreeze, thinner, and reducer are tucked away in cabinets. Black smudges leave faint, ghostly traces on the blue walls, where a small poster version of the toolkit published by GRASP project collaborators hangs. In the day-to-day movement of the shop and its activities, it’s easy to miss, and it is one of several safety-related posters on the shop wall.
Malik Ashraf, the owner, has operated this shop since 2019. He describes how UPROSE helped him “understand in terms of the environmental impact of the shop, which I never knew before . . . Besides that, they really helped me out to implement some of the methods.” UPROSE volunteers approached Ashraf in person, at his shop. After hearing about the potential impacts of chemical release during storms, he now stores certain chemicals up and away from the floor in cabinets and storage lockers. This modest change reflects his new knowledge, and new awareness of community health and safety.
Although Ashraf welcomed UPROSE’s outreach, he has other preoccupations. Over the sound of the traffic and the noises of the shop, he explains to me where development pressure encroaches from, which businesses along Fourth Avenue he has seen disappear. New Honeywell is slotted next to a funeral home and a block of rowhouses where a Pentecostal church is being constructed. In this area of Sunset Park, tire shops, full-service car washes, and other auto body shops are commonly sandwiched between homes, restaurants, and small retail establishments.
Through the two shops he operates (the second is in Coney Island), Ashraf supports his wife and three children. At 46 years old, he’s been in the business for a long time, interested in cars and auto repair since high school. However, he matter-of-factly “does not see a future” for his business in Sunset Park. In addition to industrial uses, mixed-use zoning also allows for residential and commercial development; housing and office or retail space are much more lucrative for property owners than auto shops or other industrial operations. Ashraf has recently seen two neighboring auto repair shops shut down. His landlord recently informed him that he may be interested in selling the building. If the sale doesn’t pan out, Ashraf expects a significant rent increase upon renewal.
Soon after he opened his shop in 2019, Ashraf was approached by a neighbor. She had purchased and moved into her home after the previous owner of the auto repair shop closed his business, but before Ashraf’s opened. As a result of this neighbor’s complaints, police and a number of city agencies showed up on multiple occasions and fined him for infractions he had never heard of in his years working in the industry. Many of them were related to environmental practices.
Ashraf attributes the friction to property values and changing ideas of what the neighborhood should be: its noises and the activities on display on its sidewalks and streets. “It’s a workshop, it’s a mechanic shop. You hear hammers banging and the air machine, compressors and all that stuff. It will get a little loud here. I guess she wasn’t up for it.” He describes situations where he and his workers were treated like “criminals” by police and city inspectors. According to Miquela Craytor, a community stakeholder group member for GRASP and former Executive Director of the Manufacturing and Industrial Innovation Council at New York City’s Small Business Services agency, these types of conflicts are common in gentrifying areas. “It results in a not ideal situation, where the business is expected to change its behavior . . . the burden is on them to change versus the residents that have moved having to readjust their expectations.” Not wanting to encounter the city, or be fined or ticketed again, Ashraf was wary of the GRASP team’s initial outreach.
As Craytor describes, “I think of the city as a living body. The outward stuff looks pretty but there’s stuff inside that you might not want to normally see.” Still, “it’s needed to have a healthy body . . . I take a fundamental issue that all this work can go somewhere else.” Industry City, a nearby development which houses retail alongside fashion, design, and home goods workspaces, proposed rezoning industrial land in order to expand its commercial footprint, exemplifying a larger city-wide interest in repurposing industrial land. However, fears of gentrification and local outcry regarding the loss of protected industrial land, including advocacy by UPROSE, led Industry City to pull its proposal in 2020.
Despite Ashraf’s investment in making small changes to ensure neighborhood wellbeing and resiliency, his status as a tenant prevents him from making major structural changes to the building to improve overall resilience. “Every square foot is very expensive,” he says. Installing flood barriers or stormwater management systems would not be possible. Of the recommendations in the GRASP toolkit, only the operational, low-cost interventions proved to be feasible for Ashraf’s shop.
Craytor calculates that around 75 to 80 percent of industrial small businesses are renters. She describes that “It creates a mothball effect for all companies: ‘Why would I invest in my space if I don’t know if I can afford it or if my landlord won’t renew my lease?’” she explains. “It sort of limits those investments, which is counter to what the city wants.” Even with greater awareness and education, resilience measures are difficult for owners to implement without some measure of financial stability.
Ashraf’s shop does not fall within Sandy’s inundation zone. Ida resulted in minor flooding, but otherwise his work has not yet felt the effects of extreme weather. Other concerns make up his day-to-day. Still, he and others in the area are interested in protecting the community from contamination. Bernardo Junicic is the president of a used auto parts company located in an area just bordering the Sandy floodplain, alongside the expressway. His company was spared the worst of the storm, and though he did not personally participate in the GRASP program, he knows UPROSE to be a helpful neighborhood resource. Before Sandy, he did “batten down the hatches,” tying up loose material, storing electronics at a higher level, and ensuring that all oil and flammable material was contained. He’s continued with these storage practices, as storms arrive with greater frequency.
Carlos Dos Santos owns a motorcycle shop in Red Hook. Like many in his neighborhood, he found his shop entirely underwater following Sandy. Despite a years-long effort, he was unable to access relief for the $450,000 in damages. Dos Santos believes he is one of the only business owners of color in the industry in Red Hook to have weathered the financial losses and continued operations. Six and a half feet of water poured into the building that used to be his shop, and he eventually had to relocate entirely, to another building in Red Hook. “We did have an environmental spill, but the idea that that could have been mitigated without a significant investment is ridiculous.” Dos Santos is extremely skeptical of outreach efforts that do not come with funding for shop operators. As he describes, resources to participate in a program like GRASP’s are critical. “If you came to me and said ‘Hey, we have $3,000 that will help you invest in storage and environmental mitigation’ . . . then yeah, I’ll protect the environment, I’ll dedicate some time to that.” Otherwise, while he complies with existing regulation regarding hazardous material storage, going beyond these standards would be difficult.
A few years after Sandy, the Department of City Planning released guidance for industrial businesses to prevent flood damage and reduce exposures to hazardous materials. While the document provides a helpful list of strategies — elevating equipment and dry floodproofing, or sealing off structures from water intrusion, for example — many of the recommended improvements would be out of reach for small businesses who operate with tight margins, and are tenants in spaces they do not own.
Newer, larger businesses can more easily achieve resilience from the outset. Tom Outerbridge is the General Manager of Sims Municipal Recycling, and another member of the GRASP community stakeholder group. Made of recycled steel, the Sims facility on Sunset Park’s waterfront employs approximately 110 workers, processing curbside recycling for New York City. Active since 2014, the center, designed by Selldorf Architects, comprises a tipping building for barges to transport materials, as well as processing and educational areas. It was built with sea level rise in mind; the pier on which the facility sits was elevated four feet, with an additional two feet of elevation for critical electrical components. Man-made reefs created by the city at the end of the pier mitigate the impact of waves and currents. For businesses on the working waterfront where these considerations were not originally made, adaptation is much more difficult. “If you have built infrastructure, existing infrastructure in place, it’s very expensive and very complicated from an engineering or construction perspective to change it, to elevate things,” describes Outerbridge. In his view, the public sector will have to step in with major protective infrastructural projects in order to bring forth a climate-resilient industrial sector and climate-resilient city.
Almost a decade following Superstorm Sandy, there is still a dissonance between the abstract idea of large-scale adaptation and what this might actually look like given the city’s existing built environment, real estate and development pressure, and the everyday precarity faced by industrial small businesses. While the physical realities of sea level rise can be addressed in larger, newer projects, the challenges for auto body shops and other businesses operating on thin margins goes beyond the constraints of the built environment — speaking to the existential pressures of real estate, the constraints of tenancy, and distrust between small, family-owned shops and regulators.
As Craytor describes, the luxury of targeted, community-specific outreach is not something that is often afforded to government or city agencies. “How we sell these items, how we get the buy-in from the employer: there’s an art to figuring out what is the motivator and it’s not a one size fits all… getting behind the scenes and uncovering the motivators of the employer, what are they working with, what are the terms of the lease?” Face-to-face meetings, persistence in developing meaningful partnerships go beyond the scope of agency recommendations or lists of best practices. Ashraf describes UPROSE’s friendly approach as an important factor for his own participation in the program, and his new awareness of the environmental impacts of his shop.
Still, the project’s limitations reveal just how much more is required to protect neighborhoods as they are: to simultaneously ensure the survival of businesses and workers in the industrial sector, and prevent chemical contamination. Once mutually exclusive tradeoffs, these combined aspirations speak to the future of Sunset Park, and the future of all industrial areas across the city.
All photographs by Louis Chan