NYC's Most Radioactive Spot Is an Auto Shop

When the Wolff-Alport Chemical Company was refining rare earth elements in the 1940s and 1950s, it did the responsible thing with all of the radioactive thorium waste it produced in the process: It dumped it into the sewer.

Now Los Primos Auto Repair shares the site along with a hip bar for a neighbor. This is the most radioactive site in NYC, its second of three federal superfund sites. But neighborhoods are more than just their industrial disasters, so let’s look at this important part of the city’s car world.

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(Welcome back to Carspotting! It’s been a while but we’re back with The Worst Walking Tour of New York City, headed by me, a hack who is barely qualified to tell you how to get to the Empire State Building from here. We’re out to find the best cars of the Big Apple.)

This really is the city in a nutshell. Real estate is so tough, rent is so high, auto repair shops are driven to stay on radioactive sites, and gentrification is so strong that you’ll find a trendy bar (it’s called Nowadays) abutting the back lot.

The radioactivity in the area isn’t so strong that it greatly affects people who happen to be walking by, just people who are exposed for long periods of time, day in day out. Like, say, auto mechanics working there, or, increasingly, the reporters who return year after year to cover how the site still hasn’t been cleaned up and fixed, even having been declared a federal superfund site in 2014, and its radioactivity being recognized since 1987, per the EPA. At least the lead and steel plates (and layers of concrete) installed on the floor have been blocking some radiation for the past five years, as the New York Times reports.

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I tried to talk with some of Los Primos’ employees about what it’s like in the area, but it was four o’clock on a Friday and nobody wanted to even say they worked there. The update at least from a policy standpoint is that under the Trump administration, the EPA has claimed to make superfund sites a priority as it tries to slash regulation, but that seems like it’s mostly talk. Trump has proposed slashing funding to superfund sites, with funding already a fraction of what it was in the 1990s, as detailed in a report by WNYC late in 2017.

But again, this spot on the edge of Ridgewood and Bushwick, Queens and Brooklyn, is more than just a troubled cleanup site. The businesses are still open. People still live here and eat here and laugh here, and there are tons of interesting cars on this edge of two boroughs.

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Watch the full episode of Carspotting above, and stay tuned for the next part in our series. Last time we went to Greenpoint and talked about Newtown Creek and next we’re off to Gowanus, to round out our inadvertent series on what life looks like around New York’s three superfund sites.

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About the author

Raphael Orlove

Raphael Orlove is features editor for Jalopnik.