Chernobyl. Three Mile Island. Fukushima. They’re all places you might think are high levels of dangerous radiation — but the middle of New York City?
A new (and pretty awesome) interactive site produced by The New Yorker shows just that: an entire block in Queens is a massive hotspot for radiation. But while today it’s an auto garage, that wasn’t always the case: it was once the home of the Wolff-Alport Chemical Company, producing the highly toxic and radioactive substance thorium from 1946-1954.
In fact, in 1947, the Atomic Energy Commission began “buying thorium from Wolff-Alport. Previously, the company had simply dumped their thorium into the sewer or buried it.” That thorium, for a number of years, was a critical piece of the United States’ nuclear weapons R&D program, as was the lab that made the thorium.
But today, it’s an auto shop.
After years upon years of city and New York state departments surveying the site for increased levels of radiation, one survey showed elevated radiation levels.
Rather than taking drastic action to fix this (it IS in a neighborhood in Queens, remember), the Environmental Protection Agency simply installed lead shielding over the radioactive hot spots at the site — namely the sidewalk and driveway, among other parts.
But that’s still not enough.
The EPA recommended that employees don’t lay on their backs in the shop. And while you might think “why would someone lay on their back in a warehouse?,” remember that these are mechanics: they’re always on their back, working on cars. It’s what they do.
Fortunately, the regional EPA administrator just put on the Superfund list, which would mean the government would step in to help really clean up that mess.
Sounds great, right? Maybe not — that could also mean that Alberto Rodriguez — the owner of Los Primos Auto Shop would have to move. And from the sound of things, he’s having a hard enough time staying busy as it is.