“What was originally a watershed, is now a sewage shed,” laments Riverkeeper’s Captain John Lipscomb from his ship, as he cruises down Newtown Creek recounting to his passengers tales of the dead rats and floating garbage he has seen throughout his many years cruising the waterway. This was before the city turned into an arctic paradise.
This past September, Newtown Creek, home to America’s third largest oil spill and smack in the center of its busiest metropolis, was declared a superfund site. That notorious distinction, given when an area is so polluted and hazardous that the federal government has to step in, was announced in September. Now the City, oil companies, and the Greenpoint community have to figure out how to fix this mess that has been brewing for over 100 years through the watery border that Brooklyn shares with Queens. The EPA and other local environmental agencies have pledged to clean the water and remove the 10 feet of black sludge that coats the bottom of the canal.
On my trip aboard Captain Lipscomb’s ship, we grazed through a putrid-smelling “rotting mud,” described by the captain, who explained it is the result of a century of contaminants being poured, dumped, or leaked into the creek by polluters. In addition to industrial pollution, over 500 million gallons of untreated sewage overflows in the water surrounding New York City each year. As part of the superfund settlement, the City will have to find a way to stymie this flow of raw sewage, similar to one the flow of sewage into the Gowanus Canal to the south (see video below for an example). The cleanup effort will also require significant dredging, the captain tells us.
The EPA has identified six major polluters, including the City and large oil companies like BP and Exxon Mobil, all of whom will have to pay part of the price tag, estimated at over half a billion dollars. Despite this effort, the superfund will not address the millions of gallons of oil that have seeped into the Greenpoint’s aquifer.
The Oil Spill
Up to two feet of oil lay atop Greenpoint’s water table, polluting the soil and giving rise to dangerous vapors like benzene and methane gas. In some places, the potentially explosive concentrations of methane have accumulated underneath buildings or been secreted into the air. ExxonMobil’s efforts to create a soil vapor extraction system revealed further contamination near Meeker Avenue – though unrelated to the oil spill, dangerous levels of chlorinated solvents have accumulated as a result of dumping and irresponsible manufacturing practices by dry cleaning and metalworking businesses.
Slowly but surely oil companies have been drilling recovery wells. Though 35 have been created since 1978, only a few are currently collecting oil from the contaminated area. The method is laborious—a lower pump sucks up ground water, and a second, shallower pump removes the oil floating at the top of the water. In total, over three decades of cleanup have yielded disappointing results. As of 2005, only 25-50% of the oil had been removed from both the Creek and Greenpoint’s water table.
In the last 5 years, a combination of Greenpoint residents, local watchdog organizations, and Attorney General Andrew Cuomo have brought lawsuits against oil companies, and the cleanup effort accelerated as a result. In November 2010, the governor-elect announced a historic settlement (http://www.ag.ny.gov/media_center/2010/nov/nov17b_10.html) with the main culprit, Exxon/Mobil. The deal establishes deadlines for the cleanup effort, and provides $19.5 million dollars for environmental projects like parks, and $5 million more to compensate agencies for past cleanup efforts and damaged natural resources.
The settlement also addresses concerns about just how polluted the area might be. By the middle of 2011, Exxon/Mobil must submit reports that fully identify the scope of the contamination, both in the Greenpoint’s groundwater and soil. These reports will coincide with new EPA studies on the health affects of living near Newtown, reports which should have been completed years ago.
“In 100 years, this could be prime real estate”
Boating down the filthy waterway with documentary filmmakers and members of Riverkeeper, it is hard to believe Newtown Creek is a naturally occurring tidal estuary, a wetlands that was once home to fish, blue crabs, and numerous waterfowl. In fact, today many of this wildlife can still be found, albeit in vastly reduced numbers, in and near the creek. Unfortunately, as fish and crabs migrate in and out of the creek, toxins can infect seafood in the entire waterway, making the pollution in Newtown Creek every New Yorker’s problem.
Although one of the creek’s greatest problems is its lack of drainage – causing sewage and oil build up unremittingly – it is also surprisingly connected to the East River, the Hudson, and beyond. Recent studies using tracers have shown how water from a polluted channel like Newtown Creek can ebb and flow into places like the Long Island Sound. Anything that goes into the East River, into the Hudson, into the harbor and out again, makes for “a huge mixing machine,” says Captain Lipscomb.
Despite the immense challenges facing Newtown, the folks at Riverkeeper see real progress. “We are in the middle of the really bad old days and the good days,” Captain Lipscomb continued, underscoring the urgency of the recent settlement and superfund rulings. This is a unique moment for water quality and environmental justice in Brooklyn, and New Yorkers need to make sure progress does not stop.
Captain Lipscomb is full of short anecdotes and practiced speeches, but none are as impassioned as the one he makes when his boat pulls up near a small patch of reclaimed marsh. Ducks and grasses appear in an area recently vacated by an old barge, and a semblance of old wetlands have spontaneously taken form. He relates a story about how he once saw a group of small fish gathered at the end of the channel, its most polluted part. The fish were so close to the top of the water it looked as if there were droplets falling into the creek—he realized this was the only place there was enough oxygen for them to survive. Because of the large amount of oxygen-eating bacteria in the sludge at the bottom of the river, almost no fish could survive in this former wetland. These little fish were hangers on.
Riverkeeper, community leaders, and even Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo have all given voice to a vision of what the creek could be. Surely, some water dependent businesses use the creek as a natural resource, helping the City survive economically and transporting valuable oil up the Hudson to Albany. But as we drift through the creek, listening to the animated and hopeful folks at Riverkeeper, one cannot help but picture a point in the not so distant future when riverside parks abound, sewage pipes are gone, and the water is transformed from a milk gray-green to a clean and clear blue. Captain Lipscomb encapsulates the optimism of the moment when he points to the grasses, ducks and exclaims, “If we just stopped kicking it everyday, nature wants it back… in one hundred years this could be prime real estate.”
With Newtown Creek finally getting the attention it deserves, with polluters held accountable, perhaps Newtown Creek can go from a city’s disgrace to a borough’s bounty.