State environmental officials waited nearly two years to alert the public that cancer-causing vapors over 20 times the amount considered safe escaped from polluted soil along the Gowanus Canal — and into a nearby shuffleboard club.
The Department of Environmental Conservation learned of the alarming levels of toxic vapors in March 2021 while conducting air-quality tests inside Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club — but the hipster haven remained open throughout, since the agency deemed the century-old building was “safe.”
The agency only documented the stunning finding late last year in public records buried on its website.
On Friday, DEC spokeswoman Haley Viccaro admitted to The Post that it could have done a better job alerting locals to the looming health hazard, and “are evaluating potential improvements to enhance this process and ensure this information is clear and informative of these comprehensive, science-based efforts to protect public health.”
The news came as a gut punch to Gowanus residents now battling cancer.
“I can pretty much draw a line to where I’m living to why I have cancer,” said Margaret Maugenest, 71, a longtime resident who lives a block away from the club. She was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2019.
“There’s no history of cancer in my family; I eat well; I have a healthy lifestyle, and yet I get colon cancer and am reading about all these cancer-causing materials in the soil we are surrounded by,” she added.
The revelations only came to light thanks to the grassroots group Voice of Gowanus, which hired an Ithaca, N.Y.-based environmental database firm, Toxics Targeting, that recently discovered the damning DEC documents.
The records showed March 2021 air levels of the cancer-causing chemical trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent, were nearly 22 times above acceptable levels at the shuffleboard club.
“The DEC in 2021 should’ve put up signs in the club, published public notices in local papers, and sent mail alerts to people in the neighborhood,” said Walter Hang, who heads Toxics Targeting. “All they did was make obscure references in dense technical documents regular citizens wouldn’t know about or can’t decipher.”
A state-approved project is currently underway to reduce the fumes by venting out underground contaminants. Several follow-up tests over the past two years – including one in November — have since shown the hipster hotspot’s air quality at “safe” levels despite slight traces of trichloroethylene still remaining.
However, some longtime club patrons and workers fear their health might already be at risk because its unclear how long Royal Palms’ indoor air was toxic.
“I blame the state government 100%, but at this point I’m done going back there for my own personal safety – and it’s sad because I spent many nights there,” said a Park Slope resident who played in Royal Palms’ shuffleboard leagues since 2019.
“Environmental laws in this country are so weak and hard to impose, and the fact that this went unnoticed for long is an example of how weak they are,” the person added.
Royal Palms opened in 2014 at 514 Union Street, in a building previously used as a die-cutting factory. It’s one of many former manufacturing sites in the neighborhood whose underground soil is saturated with toxic coal tar, a byproduct of former businesses making coal gas.
Over the past century, much of the coal tar – dubbed “black mayonnaise” by longtime residents — also seeped into the Gowanus canal, which is one of the nation’s most polluted waterways and undergoing a massive federal cleanup.
The DEC learned Royal Palms had air-quality issues after the building’s owners, Avery Hall Investments, applied for financial aid in early 2021 through the state’ Brownfield Cleanup Program to move ahead with a larger mixed-use development with housing on adjacent property it owns.
Local residents, however, said they didn’t become aware until the site’s remediation plan was updated in December and DEC sent out fact sheets in an email blast many of them didn’t get.
Royal Palms co-owner Jonathan Schnapp said the club has remained open because DEC assured him it’s safe.
“We’re not scientists, and we’re not experts, but we trusted the DEC; we continue to trust the DEC, and we would never do anything to put our staff or our community at risk,” said Schnapp, adding the club recently signed a lease extension to remain in business through at least 2033.
Viccaro said the DEC “did not have information of potential for contamination” until the site’s owner was accepted into the state cleanup program because there’s “currently no requirements” to test indoor air. She called the mitigation system at Royal Palms “effective.”
However, Hang and many Gowanus residents said the cleanup project doesn’t go far enough because it doesn’t entirely purify the toxic soil lurking underneath and around the building — only some of it.
“The state needs to start proactively remediating sites like this around here immediately,” said Seth Hillinger, a 46-year-old software developer who lives nearby and occasionally frequents Royal Palms.
“This shouldn’t only be a warning flag for this business, but the plenty of others built along toxic sites along the canal.”