The first sign that something was amiss at Great Kills Park, on Staten Island, came in 2005 when a police flyover of New York City detected a positive reading for radioactive material there.
The finding, part of a counterterrorism search, did not come as a complete shock. After all, the 488-acre park was the depository for 15 million cubic yards of fill in the 1940s and 1950s, including medical and sanitary waste. The fill was dumped across wetlands to turn marshy areas into usable recreation space. Some of the waste, it turned out, contained radium, a naturally occurring element that was also used for decades in medical treatments, toys, cosmetics and even toothpaste.
At first, the source of radiation appeared to be confined to a small area behind a parking lot next to a field popular for flying model airplanes. The National Park Service, which operates the park, quickly fenced it off. But in the years since, further investigations by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Army Corps of Engineers turned up more hot spots and a fuller, more disturbing picture.
“As we’re getting through this tough job, we’re finding that the contamination is not only in these discrete pockets, but is dispersed in the soil and also at the surface,” said Kathleen Cuzzolino, an environmental protection specialist for the Park Service.
This fall, after another flyover and years of excavations, the Park Service acknowledged that the contamination was more extensive than had originally been believed. Indeed, more than half of the park has shown some degree of radioactivity — virtually the entire area containing the historic fill. Park officials have fenced off 260 acres, including four ball fields, the model airplane field and a popular trail along Hylan Boulevard. Everywhere are signs proclaiming “Danger: Hazard Area.”
As a lengthy process now begins to map the contamination and devise a cleanup plan, the rhythms of family outings in this middle-class corner of Staten Island have been interrupted. Baseball and soccer leagues that used Great Kills have relocated, and so have the fliers of the model planes.
“This is potentially a very dangerous situation,” said Representative Michael G. Grimm, whose congressional district includes the park, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. “The last thing I want is to have anyone or their children get sick or hurt because of this contamination.”
Mrs. Cuzzolino said she could not predict when the closed-off portions of the park would reopen, but she cautioned that the cleanup could take years. Following federal guidelines, the National Park Service, with help from the Army Corps of Engineers, is now surveying every square foot of the 260 acres. Radiation technicians have so far scanned three-fourths of the park with detectors, a painstaking job that entailed clearing vegetation in the survey area so that the detectors could come within six inches of the ground.
The technicians suspended the survey after encountering a wide area of trees downed by Hurricane Sandy. The trees are being cleared and the work is expected to resume next month. In addition, the Park Service will remove at least 30 hot spots with the highest levels of radiation in the coming months. “Each of those will give us more information,” Mrs. Cuzzolino said.
The federal government will also undertake a “human health and ecological risk assessment,” in which soil and ground water samples will be analyzed. Then comes the eventual cleanup, which will involve a feasibility study and a public comment period. “It’s going to be several years,” Mrs. Cuzzolino said. “It’s not going to be an easy task to remediate contamination across 260 acres.”
Local blogs have lighted up with angry posts about the delays — “Staten Island parks will offer terrific choices: You can glow in Great Kills or have your sneakers melt in Freshkills,” said one post, referring to the new park also built atop a garbage dump on Staten Island — and community board meetings have drawn frustrated residents. But the National Park Service is urging patience.
“I wish it wasn’t the situation that this waste was brought to the park and the contamination is here, but it is,” Mrs. Cuzzolino said. “I look forward to getting people back out into the park safely. But we need to do this right.”
Brian Harkin for The New York Times
The other city parks on top of garbage dumps, including the recently completed Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point Park in the Bronx, are built on landfills composed mostly of household trash and became parks only after the city carefully capped them.
Great Kills, by contrast, took in all manner of debris. The fill was covered with clay and sludge in the late 1950s to form a layer of topsoil. The National Park Service recently identified the source of at least some of the radioactive contamination: discarded radium needles that had been inserted into cancerous tumors.
Mrs. Cuzzolino said some of the 30 hot spots that would be removed had radiation levels 200 times that of normal background levels in the environment. Still, the Park Service has tried to allay anxieties, asserting that the sections of the park that remain open, including a bathing beach and bicycle path, pose no danger.
In a primer on its website on the situation at Great Kills, the Park Service explains that radium’s “half-life is quite long (on the order of 1,600 years).” It adds that, at one time, radium sickened workers who painted watch dial faces with it so that they would glow in the dark. “They wetted their paint brush tips by mouth to make a fine point to apply the paint; by doing so, they ingested radium,” the fact sheet states.
The information bulletin ends on a reassuring note: “The areas that are open to visitation are considered safe.”