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Auto Shops on Superfund Site to Be Evicted for Environmental Cleanup

By Gwynne Hogan | September 29, 2017 2:25pm | Updated on October 1, 2017 7:47pm
 José Portes, 53, works on a motorcycle outside the repair shop he's run for the last 10 years.
José Portes, 53, works on a motorcycle outside the repair shop he's run for the last 10 years.
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DNAinfo/Gwynne Hogan

RIDGEWOOD — The auto parts company that Albert Rodriguez built up over the last 20 years on Irving Avenue will soon be gone — for his own good, according to federal regulators.

His garage, Primo Auto Parts and Services, and six other businesses sit on the radioactive remains of the Wolff-Alport Chemical Company, a property stewed in carcinogenic toxins.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that all the tenants in this industrial corner of Queens must leave to allow the agency to remediate the site.

Business owners were caught by surprise by the announcement and left wondering what they're going to do next.

"Wherever I go, it'll be like starting a new business," Rodriguez, 48, said in Spanish. "You go to another location and your clients will leave you."

"I'll have to start over again."

The EPA still has yet to flesh out a definitive timeline for when the businesses have to leave and the uncertainty is terrifying Andy Bermeo, 42, owner of K+M Auto Repair on Cooper Avenue.

"My mechanics' families, my family depends on this," he said.

Andy Bermeo, 42, has run his Ridgewood repair shop K+M Auto Repair for 10 years on Cooper Avenue.  (DNAinfo/Gwynne Hogan)

The agency has budgeted $1,112,500 to help move the tenants, according to the EPA's report on the remediation released Tuesday, but it has not given specifics on how the money will be spent or when the businesses will be evicted.

The business owners first got wind that they might have to move off the site permanently at a public meeting in August where the EPA presented four different plans, including one that would let them stay on site and another that would allow them to leave temporarily and return after remediation.

"I thought there was some chance we could stay," Rodriguez said in Spanish. He had left the meeting hopeful that he'd still be able to save his businesses.

The .75-acre site operated as a chemical company from the 1920s until 1954, according to the EPA. Wolff-Alport imported radioactive monazite sand from the Belgian Congo and used the factory to extract rare earth metals like uranium and thorium. 

The EPA believes the toxins were dumped in the sewers and buried there.

In its most recent tests in 2015 and 2016, the agency found elevated levels of potentially cancer-causing thorium, radium, radon, PBCs Benzo(a)pyrene in the soil, the building materials, sewer sediment, and in the air inside some parts of the buildings.

Businesses and residents on the site of the former Wolff-Alport Chemical Company need to leave for good. (DNAinfo/Gwynne Hogan)

A bodega on the corner, Jarabacoa Deli Corp, also there for around two decades, will have to close up shop, as well as the tenants in three apartments above it, who couldn't be reached for comment immediately.

While some have roots on the block for decades, Celtic Custom, a motorcycle repair shop, just opened two years ago after hunting far and wide for a suitable location at a rent it could afford, said co-owner Sandy Frayman, 46.

They'd built out the shop with custom power and air lines to be able to do the kind of repairs they needed and the landlord had assured them they weren't at any risk since he'd redone the shop's floor with lead and concrete.

"I'm not against the job. I think it needs to be done," he said. "It's a shame that it's at our expense."