[Note:This story first appeared in the print edition of the Norwood News, which hit streets last week. In the story, Geoffrey Croft of New York City Park Advocates says the Parks Dept. should have known about this contamination before they even bid out the contract for renovations, or at least a year ago, maybe even earlier. Now, it appears there were multiple reports of hazardous material contamination at Harris Park prior to 2004, according to a supplemental environmental impact statement completed for a DEP construction project at Jerome Park Reservoir. Thanks to Karen Argenti, a longtime Bronx activist and watchdog, for pointing this out.]
By Alex Kratz
Sonia Lappin looks out over Harris Field from her Bedford Park apartment building and sees a glorious past – a community space used by generations of local families for everything from ball games to picnics – and an uncertain future.
Lappin, a long-time local resident and activist who lives in Scott Tower just across the street from Harris, is not alone. She and others wonder how long the next generation will have to wait before the fields will be ready and safe for use after lead soil contamination was discovered at Harris in 2009.
The contamination was unearthed by construction workers doing a massive renovation of the heavily-used park sometime in 2009 and the fix is going to cost an additional $5.2 million of taxpayer funds, bringing the total cost of the project to $13.9 million. The original cost estimate for the renovation, which was being paid for by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and carried out by the Parks Department, was $6.6 million.
Unanswered questions surrounding the contamination and renovation efforts have infuriated local residents like Lappin.
“Everyone is really upset about the stalling and the cover-up,” Lappin said.
Since the Norwood News broke news of the contamination and how it was stalling the project back in October, the Parks Department has been cautiously tight-lipped about Harris Field, which lies between Lehman College and the Bronx High School of Science near the Jerome Park Reservoir.
It remains unclear when the contamination was discovered, what levels of contamination were found and when the fields will finally be ready for use.
[In October, the Norwood News filed a Freedom of Information Law request asking for all of this information. The Parks Department responded, saying they would need 60 business days to compile the information. It has now been more than 90 days and the Parks Department still has not responded.] “[The Parks Department] doesn’t seem to be talkative about the future of the field,” said Barbara Stronczer, the head of Community Board 7’s parks committee.
After the contamination story broke, the agency twice sent representatives to the Board’s Parks Committee meetings at Stronczer’s request. They said they didn’t have anything to tell the committee about what was happening at Harris Field.
In January, a Parks Department representative finally told Stronczer’s committee that the agency was taking steps to “cap” the contaminated soil with a layer of synthetic containment lining (called “geo-textile”) and then a foot of fresh, contaminant-free topsoil.
Parks Department spokesperson Jesslyn Moser said in an e-mail, “We added into our plan removal of the contaminated soil and the addition of one foot of clean fill where needed.”
Stronczer said the Parks Department told her committee that work on the field would resume when the weather warmed up, probably sometime in March. They didn’t say when the fields would be ready for play, but said they wouldn’t be ready for this spring or summer.
Unfortunately, that’s when local little leagues count on the use of Harris Field.
Originally, in August of 2008, the Parks Department said construction would be completed by the spring of 2009, in time for little league play.
Mosholu Montefiore Community Center’s little league teams have used Harris for years, but last year, with construction still ongoing, they were forced to play elsewhere and down-size their league from 1,000 kids to around 500.
Geoffrey Croft of the nonprofit group New York City Park Advocates said the problems should have been taken care of long ago.
“Knowing the history of the site the contaminates should have been known about before the job went out to bid,” Croft said. “It's outrageous that the parks department continues to block the release of the contamination results and when they first found out about the hazardous materials. This is a basic public health and safety issue.”