In south Brooklyn, Dead Horse Bay has been a destination for those seeking antique treasures amid a melange of seaside refuse. But now, authorities have shut down the southern end of the park, which sits atop a former landfill, after finding radioactive waste mixed in among the glittering shards of green, brown and clear glass spread across its beach, reports Rose Adams for the Brooklyn Paper.
Dead Horse Bay gets its unsavory-sounding name from the numerous horse-rendering plants that operated along its marshy shoreline from the 1850s until the 1930s, reported Daniel B. Schneider for the New York Times in 1999. According to the Times, these plants tended to dump the boiled, hacked-up horse bones directly into the bay. At its peak of putrefaction, the region featured more than two dozen horse-rendering plants, fish oil factories and garbage incinerators, turning Dead Horse Bay into one of New York’s most foul-smelling stretches of navigable water.
Astoundingly, the bay’s tiny Barren Island—which hosted many of the plants and is now connected to the mainland by landfill—was once home to a population of nearly 2,000 people who endured its nauseating stench and labored in its unappealing industries, reported Keith Williams for the Times in 2017.
In the early 1950s, the City of New York filled in the south end of the park with “great mounds of garbage from Queens and Brooklyn flattened into compact layers with sand carpeting one to two feet thick,” according to the National Park Service (NPS), which now manages the 178-acre site.
Since then, the 25-foot-tall mound of in-fill has begun to erode at its edge, disgorging fragments of daily life in New York City from more than 100 years ago, according to Atlas Obscura. The trove of old trash includes thousands of glass bottles, leather shoes, ceramics and rusted metal.
Nowadays, “Glass Bottle Beach,” as its known, has become an off-the-beaten-path attraction, with some going as far as digging up the beach in hopes of finding a unique souvenir. It’s this propensity for rooting around in muck suffused with the garbage of yesteryear that has the NPS worried.
Beginning in 2019, NPS surveys identified 31 locations with higher than average levels of radiation in the park. Subsequent investigations uncovered leaking deck markers filled with the radioactive element radium-226 at two locations. The glowing deck markers were once installed at the edge of ships’ decks to help prevent sailors from falling overboard at night.
Soil testing revealed the deck markers had contaminated the surrounding dirt to a depth of approximately two feet, per the NPS statement. In response, the NPS has closed down 84 acres in the southern area of the park where the markers were found until they can conduct a more thorough investigation. Past surveys also detected chemical pollutants including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and heavy metals.
Reporting for Atlas Obscura, Jessica Leigh Hester writes that some experts aren’t sure that a pair of deck markers constitutes a significant danger to public health.
“If I saw one of those deck markers, I would probably put on gloves, but not run out of the room,” Jeffrey C. Womack, a public historian and author of a book about the history of radiation, tells Atlas Obscura. “People get twitchy when they realize stuff is radioactive,” but he adds, “I don’t think it’s super dangerous.” For his part, Womack contends that the more dangerous pollutants at Dead Horse Bay are chemical contaminants such as PCBs.
The NPS indicated that the cleanup of the site “may last many years,” and that has some who grew to love its clinking shoreline worried that Glass Bottle Beach’s peculiar charm might be lost in the name of cleanliness.
“I’m worried that they’re just going to pick everything up off the beach and dispose of it in some way without any record being kept of it,” Miriam Sicherman, author of Brooklyn’s Barren Island: A Forgotten History, tells Atlas Obscura. “It’s such a unique place … For it to just go out with a whimper and that be the end of it … that would be really sad.”