Photo from a February 4, 1998 report by Human
Factors Applications Incorporated (HFA) to the U.S. Army Corps of engineers. Surveyers are
using metal detectors to search for possible amunition and the red flags are sites where
metal was detected under ground at Fort Totten.
The question is how extensive a sweep for old and possibly live
bullets, shells and other amunition do you do on a Fort that has been a military base for
over 150 years before you dig new foundations into the ground.
The Federal governments answer has been that you dig just four feet in some cases
and one civilan observer as well as the city of New York tend to disagree.
For three years, Lawrence Ordine has served as the chairman of the civilian committee
observing the Armys environmental investigation at Fort Totten (the Restoration
Advisory Board or RAB). He has waded through looseleafs full of initial findings, verbal
historical accounts, and a mountain of meeting educating himself on every aspect of the
environment of Fort Totten. And now, "my concerns for the environmental condition of
the Fort are more troubling than ever," he explained in an exclusive statement to the
"In what is literally a potentially explosive situation, the search for unexploded
munitions on the base was conducted in a manner which renders the results useless. Metal
detectors were used on only a small portion of the base and a statistical sample of the
magnetic hits were dug up. Since the subsurface is a junkyard of discarded
metal pieces, pipe, conduit, rails, wire, etc, the value of examining less than ten
percent of the underground objects falls to near zero as the sheer number of junk hits
overwhelms the statistics, he wrotes.
A photo from the February 1997 HFA report showing
harmless metal dug up at "magnetic hits" sites.
Its like using a magnet to find a needle in a haystack filled with
nails," Ordine said, and New York City tends to agree with him.
According to Marcie Kesner, director of planning and development for Queens Borough
President Claire Shulman, the city is "still in negotiations on additional
testing" for unexploded munitions.
She confirmed that "the city would like more testing," however the federal
government is maintaining that they have completed what was required of them by law.
Kesner added that the federal government has been "willing to entertain the
discussion" of further testing, but has yet to make any agreements with the city. Tribune
attempts to reach the Army Corps of Engineers officials overseeing the environmental
cleanup were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile Ordine showed the Tribune pictures from official reports to the corps
showing a sea of little red flags indicating some kind of metal below the surface as
investigators scan the ground with detectors.
He says the study was done with detectors which could only find a twenty-four inch
metal object to a depth of four feet. "The most common munitions stored at Totten in
the last century were anti-aircraft shells shorter than two feet and which were shipped in
and out of Totten in huge quantities during and after World War II."
Ordine is afraid that, construction or utility trench work both presently
anticipated will go much deeper than the search limits. Any digging at the Fort,
needed for the planned Esplanade, new water service or training facilities, should be
proceeded by a ground penetrating radar search for the typically smaller munitions stored
at Totten in recent decades. A shovel striking a forty millimeter anti-aircraft shell,
grenade or rifle cartridge will make a powerful enough impression on an unlucky
The Armys ordinance study concerns itself with massive artillery shells which are
frankly much harder to lose."
Kesner added that although the city and the borough president are pushing for the
federal government to do further testing, the city would also have to complete a City
Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) and a Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP) that
would identify and take care of any environmental issues at the fort.
She concluded that the city wants to "maximize our protection" but that if
hazardous conditions arise down the road it is the federal government and the army which
will "always be held responsible."
Ordines concerns as the chairman of the Fort Totten RAB include other
environmental hazards as well.
"The Fire Department of New York City will take over the Administration of the
Fort and move their Fire Training Academy from Randalls Island to Totten. While such
a tenant, well-heeled with education grants, solves the funding problems of maintaining
the buildings and public areas, the proposed placement of the simulated fire training
facility over an Army landfill may be anything from problematic to downright dangerous.
The Fire Department will erect mock buildings with controlled fires their trainees will
extinguish. Plans call for removing the enlisted mans housing built in 1959 on the
east side of the fort to make way for this training ground.
The Fire Department, shown already in a Fort Totten
building will be overseeing the future of the Fort once it is out of federal hands.
In my initial conversations with Fire officials, they were unaware this area sits
directly over a landfill the Army operated from the 1920s until 1958 to receive
solid waste from the bases primitive sewage treatment plant. Sewer sludge from their
settling tank, along with anything else an army base would like to dispose of, was dumped
in this trench and fill area for thirty years. All urban sludge contains high levels of
toxic heavy metals including mercury, lead, and cadmium, but since the Forts
workshops, laboratories and medical facilities were also on the sewer system, Fort
Tottens old sludge is particularly nasty," he wrote.
The advisor supervising the project and transfer of the land to the Fire Department was
not available for comment on the situation by presstime. However, a spokesperson for the
Queens borough president said the Fire Departments proposals and a prosposal from
the Eastern Paralyized Veterans have already been completed and submitted to the federal
government. Park Department and historical building proposals are currently being drafted.
"Tottens large fleet of vehicles and military equipment, maintenance shops,
ammunition storage and general operations produced large quantities of toxic solvents,
contaminated lubricants, paint, thinners, etc. No accurate records have been found of the
waste thrown in the landfill other than industrial and sanitary waste, but no
other method of removal was used during the period other than tossing and pouring items
into the surrounding bays," Ordine charges.
"In 1987 one of monitoring wells at the edge of the landfill showed a high
concentration of naphthaleneone of the byproducts of decomposing gasoline.
Subsequent samples have shown a sharp drop in those levels leading to the obvious
conclusion that the contamination has been flushed by the movement of ground water into
Little Neck Bay.
"The addition of many thousands of gallons of water into the landfill by fire
fighting exercises would speed the corrosion of buried drums and containers of waste and
push more toxic materials under the site into the surrounding waters."
Finally, Ordine wants answers to what will happen if the Fire Dept. does not use a
water recovery system. Since even the run-off of such operations is a serious
environmental hazard to the Bays, such a system is essential to protect the waters.
In addition, to ensure fire academy trainees are not incinerated, some care will be
needed to ensure no methane is liberated by pile driving into the landfill for
construction of structures to be set ablaze."
In search for answers as well as the right questions, Ordine added. "The fire
training facility, now a political certainty and which at first seems unwise, could be an
unexpected solution to an intractable environmental problem. As no money exists to exhume
the ten acre landfill, and its closing date exempts its management or remediation under
existing lawthe wisest and simplest course would be to cap the site with a
waterproof covering as part of the water recovery system for the Fire Department. This
will prevent any water or rainfall from entering what is now, and hopefully will always
remain, a mystery."