People who live around Roberto Clemente Park in Brentwood are angry and worried that the 50,000 tons of hazardous waste, including asbestos, heavy metals and pesticides, that were dumped in their community could make them and their children ill.
Beyond health concerns, homeowners in a hamlet where roughly seven of every 10 residents are Hispanic fear that the dumping in the Islip Town-owned park will leave them with houses they can’t sell. Closed since April, its gates chained and locked, the park is to these residents a symbol of a wounded community.
They say they saw “truck after truck” dump dirt and debris on their fields. They say they assumed the park — renamed after a beloved Puerto Rican baseball legend in 2011 to disassociate the park from a spate of gang-related violence there — was getting the face-lift they had long wanted. Now, as a criminal investigation by the Suffolk County district attorney’s office proceeds, alongside town plans to clean the park, these residents say they feel trapped with the stigma of a toxic site near their homes.
Since April, disclosures of additional dumping sites — including a six-home subdivision in Islandia, built for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — have unsettled residents on streets and in communities beyond Brentwood and the Town of Islip. But to these residents, Roberto Clemente is their ground zero, their home park, and where the scandal first broke.
“It’s an outrage and it’s a crime and people have gone to jail for less than that, and that’s what’s worrying people here,” said Carlos Morales, 59, a homeowner living a few houses from the park’s main entrance.
Morales‘ roots in the community are deep: His family moved to the block more than 40 years ago. But his 4-year-old grandson, Victor, can’t enjoy the same park that his daughter had growing up.
“Even if I wanted to leave, where are you going to go? Who’s going to buy property next to this demon park?” Morales said.
His sister, Ivonne Morales, 70, lives by the park entrance and said she fears going in her backyard, despite assurances from Islip Town and Suffolk County health officials that the air is safe. “Do I dare go out in the yard? Do I dare go out in the pool?” she said.
Watching and worrying
Aggie Gonzalez, whose home is behind the now polluted soccer fields, thinks the dust clouds kicked up by trucks that brought in fill since last summer could have made her sick. Gonzalez, 50, said she spent three days in March at Southside Hospital in Bay Shore and another week at a private medical center, receiving treatment for an acute upper respiratory infection.
She often took her grandchildren, Franco, 8, and Melody, 4, to the park and spent hours tending a community garden behind it.
“I was constantly clearing my throat, then my ear was clogged, my eyes were getting watery, and then I had wheezing,” Gonzalez said. “I was terrified for myself and my grandkids” when the pollution was disclosed.
Clemente Park is the most prominent of three sites where significant pollution has been found, out of six probed. The other two are an Islip Avenue site in Central Islip, also home to a significant minority community, and the Islandia subdivision, Veterans Way.
Others near the polluted sites repeated similar grievances as those around Clemente Park. Residents in a row of homes near the Islip Avenue lot at Sage Street, where mounds of dirt and construction debris rise higher than the surrounding chain-link fence, said they had complained for years about their block being used as a transfer station, with large machinery scooping, grinding and sifting dirt there.
Their houses and cars were often covered with a layer of dirt, and children and adults became sick, several Spanish-speaking residents said.
“Our children went from having cold symptoms, to just coughing or saying they had headaches,” said Diana Guzman, 36, who has two daughters, Alexandra, 4, and Dayna, 6. “I was livid when this came out because they didn’t think we were human beings living around here.”
Roger Escobar, 36, a cook, said he had to drive himself to Southside and Good Samaritan hospitals several times because he woke up feeling as though he couldn’t breathe. He said the two youngest of his three children, ages 3, 8 and 11, suffer from asthma and use inhalers some nights.
“Had I known this was going to happen to us, I would not have bought this house,” Escobar said. “I have been paying $10,000 in taxes to eat dirt.”
Advocates and politicians have echoed residents’ concerns, and some have raised the specter of “environmental racism,” saying that Clemente Park is in Brentwood, a community where many residents are also recent immigrants.
“It’s a total disgrace that the town has allowed this to happen,” said Assemb. Phil Ramos (D-Central Islip), who denounced the dumping as discriminatory at the recent Puerto Rican/Hispanic Day Parade. “The town council and supervisor now attempt to wash their hands by saying it is a contractor” who did it, “which is also something that promotes a lot of outrage in our community.”
Daniel Altschuler, Long Island coordinator for the Latino advocacy group Make the Road New York, in Brentwood, said the nonprofit is “looking into legal action” on residents’ behalf, though the group wasn’t ready to name whom it would target in a suit.
Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota uncovered what he called an environmental nightmare when he started his criminal investigation in April and served subpoenas on Islip Town. He said at least one “unscrupulous contractor” had dumped contaminated soil in the park. Complaints of debris in the park caused the town to remove fill in January, which investigators now say was taken to another Islip site.
Dumping in the park is believed to have started last June as part of a volunteer effort to improve soccer fields. That work was initiated by Iglesia de Jesucristo Palabra Miel, a Hispanic church near the park.
The church’s pastor, Marco Lopez, did not respond to requests for comment. Church members said he was away on a preaching tour.
Town spokeswoman Inez Birbiglia said officials share the residents’ concern for a safe cleanup, and she said the administration is working hard to get the park in good shape and keep residents informed through mailings and a bilingual hotline. The town has been working to make sure “this current state . . . is temporary” in putting together a remedial action plan that will be reviewed by town, county and state agencies to remove the toxic material, she said.
The town, which says it will bond as much as $6 million for the park’s cleanup, estimated it should take four months to remove the polluted fill. The town is also planning to rebuild the fields and continue promised Clemente Park pool repairs and upgrades, at a projected cost of $1.5 million to $2 million, so that the park can be returned to residents’ use by the end of June 2015.
“It was never the town; the church came to us and asked us if we could rebuild the fields,” Birbiglia said. “The town and this church were taken advantage of by unscrupulous contractors . . . The investigation will prove who is criminally responsible for these crimes. And they are crimes.”
At a public forum held last month at the Brentwood Public Library by Suffolk County Legis. Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood), residents directed their anger at town board members, with one calling the dumping “a terrorist attack on Brentwood.”
Legislators, town council members, county water authority representatives and county and state health officials met again Wednesday night with dozens of residents, giving them a progress report on the remediation plans and explaining that drinking water is safe, and that the health threat in the park is not as severe as some residents fear.
Air quality tested
James Tomarken, commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, told residents that air quality tests at the park, where 16 monitors have been placed, and at the Central Islip site have come back negative for asbestos in the air.
Any exposure to asbestos fibers would be minimal, said Thomas Johnson, a research scientist with the New York State Department of Health. He told residents that “we do not expect any serious long-term health effects” based on the information available so far from the site.
The dumping case has cemented the belief among some that Brentwood and Central Islip have not been a priority for the town, and that this was the culmination of years of neglect.
The two soccer fields that were to be refurbished at Clemente Park — named Nicholas Fritz Memorial Field in the late 1980s — were named in honor of an Army medic killed in Vietnam when he was 21, said his brother, Joe Fritz, of Brentwood.
What was once a “very attractive-looking soccer field” had turned “nonexistent” in recent years, Fritz said, with “no seed, no cultivation, nothing.”
Residents rallied to fight against the 2013 closure of the park’s pool, which had fallen in disrepair, leading to the town’s current plan to repair it and put in a spray park.
“There’s always been the argument about there being a tale of two towns” in Islip, said Renee Ortiz, a Central Islip resident and community advocate who sits on the town’s Community Development Agency.
“There’s a town north of Sunrise Highway and the town south of Sunrise Highway and they have gotten a better share of town resources south of the highway, and the further south you go the more affluent it is.”
Birbiglia said she disagreed “very strongly” with those characterizations, saying the town’s “commitment to improving this major facility in Brentwood was very strong, very public and very clear.”
Some residents, however, are having a hard time accepting the town’s explanations, saying that the municipality should have known what was happening on its fields.
Near Clemente Park, Elsa Morazan, 68, also worried about a persistent cough she never had before. A homeowner there for 33 years, she said she had jogged through the park when the dirt was being deposited.
“It’s not fair and I don’t think we should have to be going through this,” said Morazan, who’s retired. “Anything you want to do in the house, the town wants to fine you or ask for a permit, but with this they look the other way?”
Her daughter, Lisa Jenkins, 36, looked toward the fields that the town waters regularly to keep contaminants from going airborne.
“You feel like evil is there now,” Jenkins said, “and that it came to our community and left it a waste.”
With Sarah Armaghan