Migrant Men Move Into Gowanus Shelter Before Planned State Toxin Testing

Migrant Men Move Into Gowanus Shelter Before Planned State Toxin Testing

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By Greg B. Smith

Over the weekend the city’s homeless services agency began housing migrant men in a newly opened 400-bed shelter that sits alongside Brooklyn’s polluted Gowanus Canal — before state environmental officials have begun planned testing of the site for potential toxic contamination.

The Department of Social Services declined to say precisely when the six-story former factory building opened as a shelter, but THE CITY visited the site Monday and reviewed daily sign-in sheets for residents dating back at least to Saturday.

The former manufacturing building sits alongside the notoriously fetid canal — designated for cleanup as a federal Superfund site in 2010 — and right next to one of the most contaminated sites in the entire city, a vacant lot still poisoned by toxins lurking in the soil beneath what had been a gas manufacturing plant.

Because of its proximity to documented tainted properties, the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) placed the site of the newly opened shelter on a list of 300 properties the agency intended to test to see if underground contaminants had found their way there.

The concern is that the vapors from below-ground chemicals can percolate upwards and into buildings. Last fall the state began asking property owners for access to the targeted properties to perform so-called soil vapor intrusion testing for potential toxicity.

As THE CITY recently reported, the owner of the Third Street site, David Levitan, received a notice from DEC in October seeking access to the site. As of Monday the state had yet to get into the building to begin the planned testing.

DEC did not immediately respond to THE CITY’s request for comment.

Levitan did not respond to a call Monday seeking comment.

On Monday, the Department of Social Services acknowledged that the independent testing by the state had yet to begin but said they were instead relying on testing results obtained by Levitan.

DSS spokesperson Neha Sharma said “the city’s technical agencies reviewed the results from the [landlord’s] Vapor Intrusion Survey at the site and found that the results do not indicate a current health risk to building occupants.”

The agency did not respond to THE CITY’s request to release the results of the landlord’s tests or describe the protocols employed to ensure the integrity of those tests. They also did not answer questions about how many migrants are currently staying in the shelter. THE CITY counted between 15 and 20 names on each of the daily sign-in sheets for Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

The building is owned by a company called Liberty One, co-owned by Levitan. Over the last few years, Levitan has owned multiple buildings that housed city-funded shelters that have racked up housing and building code violations, according to the New York Times.

Neighborhood residents who are part of the Third Street Block Association and have filed suit against DSS to stop the shelter blasted the Adams administration on Monday for opening the site to migrants before independent testing was complete.

“The use of this property without testing and remediation violates New York City zoning rules and New York State environmental standards and places all residents and migrants in danger and exposes the City to long term liability that taxpayers will be responsible for,” the group’s president, Robert Mesnard, stated.

Years back, the city rejected an attempt by the building’s previous owner to convert the property from manufacturing to residential use. A 2004 ruling by the Board of Standards & Appeals, which adjudicates zoning variances, declared that residential use was “inappropriate” given the site’s location next to the long-contaminated canal.

In January, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Anne Williams-Isom emphasized that the shelter would have to pass all regulatory requirements, “and if it was not fit for people being sheltered there we would not have people there.”

Last week, the Department of Social Services awarded a no-bid emergency contract to pay a nonprofit health care firm, BHRAGS Home Care Corp., $44.6 million to operate the Third Street shelter through June 2026. BHRAGS has little experience running shelters but has received multiple contracts with DSS — all on an emergency no-bid basis — to operate what the city calls “sanctuary sites” all over the city, often in hotels. The Third Street contract has yet to be registered by the city comptroller.

A BHRAGS employee at the site on Monday declined to answer THE CITY’s questions but promised to pass the request along to a higher-up. As of Monday evening, THE CITY had not heard back from BHRAGS.

This story was published by THE CITY on April 8, 2024.

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