Take one look at this interactive map of New York City’s toxic sites, and the city appears to be one giant minefield loaded with brownfields, superfund sites, and gas tank leaks galore. But the toxic spills littering the scene make up more than just a map: They tell a cautionary tale about the history of development in the city.
Obviously, the clusters of brownfields around Newtown Creek in Brooklyn show a bygone manufacturing era, but many icons simply demonstrate shifts in zoning regulations as
yuppies young professionals (like myself) flock to former industrial sites near the waterfront. The density of leaks in Manhattan—identified by blue and green stars—also show a city paying for its earlier dependence on gasoline and heating oil well into 2013.
"Those could either be from truck releases, from oil tanks, fuel from a tank in the ground, and material those tanks were made of had the potential for corroding," explained Nancy Jorisch, a senior data analyst at Property Shark, the real estate information firm that put together the project. "Tanks seem to fail."
New York City has some of the most ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals in the United States, as outlined in Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC sustainability initiatives. In 2011, the city began phasing out the cheapest, dirtiest types of heating oil, and aims to cut down its emissions by 30% in 2030. But Property Shark’s map shows that the 20th century’s taste for oil is still very much a part of modern city living. And the map only shows the sites that may not be fully remediated.
Property Shark has been working with Toxics Targeting, which sources information from federal, state, and local sources, as well as private industry, over the last seven years to keep these maps updated regularly. But they’re not necessarily a reason to despair, says Jorisch.
"It’s sort of daunting when you look at the map really zoomed out. You see all these colors and icons and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, do I really want to live in New York City?’" Jorisch said. "But of course you do. Because when you really, really zoom in, you realize that those icons tend to be clustered in certain areas. And where there’s the occasional icon, there’s a bunch of them that are coming from zoning changes, and the need to repurpose property in New York," she added.
Even in locations with many icons, far from all of the sites are toxic enough to make you want to move. Most of New York City gets its drinking water from upstate (as my colleague, and former environmental cleanup expert Jessica Leber points out), so fears about heavy metals and oil leaching into groundwater might not affect the average person directly. Other times, building owners are required to take other precautions, like removing top soil that is contaminated or lining the basement of a building to prevent vapors from intruding.
Still, knowledge of those toxic sites could be enough to make a person reconsider renting a basement apartment near the water. Happy clicking, neighbors.