NEWTOWN: A Troubled Creek Needs All the Help it Can Get
“An environmental nightmare”
– New York Daily News
It’s hard to think of a place more routinely maligned in New York City than Newtown Creek.
Several newspapers and environmental organizations, perhaps with an eye toward titillating readership and generating sponsorship, have called it the most polluted waterway in America. Whether or not this is true depends much on what one considers a waterway. But certainly, Newtown Creek is about as freakishly distorted a natural feature as American industry has yet produced.
Its natural wetlands and forests, once the envy of Native American tribes up and down the coast and a hunting playground for Manhattan businessmen of the Victorian era – who would steal away for weekends stalking deer and waterfowl by the creek’s banks – were all drained beginning in the Civil War era, filled in and covered over with concrete and piled high with refineries and factories.
Its natural tidal flow once stretched all the way from the East River to Flushing Bay and encompassed most of present-day Long Island City, boasting some of the richest oyster beds in the entire country.
Now the creek doesn’t much flow at all, except into walled-in bulkheads and weed-choked lots, and the natural 55-acre underground aquifer that once quenched the thirst of the villages of Maspeth, Newtown and Greenpoint is largely empty of water. What little there is lies carpeted with a heavy coat of rotting oil.
And of course, the waters of Newtown Creek have been used as a virtual cesspool by the city and as a dumping ground for industry since – well, since the beginnings of the industrial era itself.
But some think that Newtown Creek may not completely deserve all the hyperbole thrown its way. Ask some of the residents, water enthusiasts, and amateur historians who frequent the creek and you’ll soon find out that it’s anything but a lost cause.
“There’s always something going on,” says John Doswell, the executive director of the Working Harbor Committee, a non-profit agency that advocates for the role of tugboats and other working craft in the New York and New Jersey estuaries. “It definitely is a working creek.”
Doswell, together with the Newtown Creek Alliance, an environmental neighborhood non-profit made up mostly of Greenpoint residents, puts together a public tour of the entire navigable length of Newtown Creek yearly. The last tour, in November, incorporated members of the media, residents and environmentalists, historians, and scientists in a kind of informational bonanza set atop a large yacht cruising up the creek.
Groups of recreational kayakers like the Long Island City Boathouse (LICB) also regularly lead kayak trips up the creek, although this may soon be changing, as the city says it wants to begins more strictly enforcing a new boating ban in some of the most polluted areas.
Needless to say, boaters are up in arms about the new restrictions, which some see as suspiciously tied to new federal and media interest and the city’s desire to avoid liability.
Erik Baard, a freelance writer and one of LICB’s founders, still kayaks all over the East River estuary and Newtown Creek. He’s written extensively about various routes he’s found and is currently pushing the city to provide more launch sites like the one being planned at Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center on the creek.
And then there are the early-morning fishermen. I asked one tall, leather-skinned man standing on a Queens side bulkhead near the old animal processing and offal yards whether he knew that the old Phelps-Dodge site – only a quarter mile east – had poured so much copper extract, refining slag and sulfuric acid/brimstone residue into the water and soil that it had stained the entire creek and made the 36-acre empty lot unusable for even parking old UPS trucks.
He replied only that he limits himself to eating only two of the fish he catches per week, for fear of “too much poison”.
As the border between the Long Island City and Sunnyside sections of Queens and the Greenpoint and East Williamsburg portion of Brooklyn, the creek definitely boasts some rich history, most of which is evident in the landscape.
A paddler drifting down will log over five miles, including tributaries. Some of the sights they will encounter: cracked concrete slabs of forgotten industries; ancient splintered pilings that once held aloft pearly shell-road bridges; scrap metal dealers where entire cars are shredded and compressed to cubes in moments and shipped off in containers to China; numberless sprawling cement factories; and even 17th and 18th century earthen and wooden bulkheads crafted by the earliest Dutch and English settlers.
They will also see a creek that frequently mutates in form, owing to crude channeling and engineering techniques. The mouth, at the East River, is flat and open to the sky, yawning wide and blue, with tugboats, barges and even the occasional high-masted yacht bellowing through its wide lock.
But farther in, sometimes bizarre panoramas appear: chugging crafts and occasional kayaks dwarfed by the monumental industrial elegance of the Koskiuzco Bridge, which roars with BQE and LIS traffic high above; the blunt, functional Greenpoint Avenue (or John Jay Byrne Memorial) Bridge, with its graffiti-covered supports; and the sprawling acres of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment plant in Greenpoint, its towering orb-like “digester eggs” shimmering silver and blue like something out of a grade-Z 1950’s space movie.
Near it’s mouth, the banks of Newtown Creek are lined with mostly low, clean-cut manufacturing buildings and warehouse space. The water at least visibly moves here, both at the entrance to Dutch Kills, where the rusted skeletal hulls of sunken oil barges slumber, and at the Maspeth Creek outlet, where the ever-present sludge coexists with a surprisingly verdant riparian area and even the occasional grey heron.
But as the creek winds through the neighborhood south and east, it narrows into sterile manmade channels, finally terminating ingloriously among dilapidated heaps of rusted construction and waste management equipment at its southern reach.
Here, the creek’s longest tributary, English Kill, stretches like a narrow grubby finger all the way down to the intersection of Johnson and Morgan Avenues at the border of East Williamsburg and Bushwick in Brooklyn. The tributary acts as a showcase for many of the worst symptoms of the creek’s sickness.
“We don’t go all the way up the creek anymore on the Newtown tours,” says John Doswell.
It’s easy to see why. The businesses here – the odd lumberyard, the occasional distribution center for canned and packaged foods – for the most part do not rely on the water, because the water here is almost entirely stagnant. It is also befouled with toxic sediments and sewage thickly layered on the bottom.
The volume of the overall sediments in Newtown Creek is staggering – at least 1,000,000 cubic yards, according to an Environmental Protection Agency study.
That’s about four Empire State Buildings, says Mitch Waxman, a creek historian and tour guide. The sediments include copper, zinc and other toxic metals, which comprise up to one percent of the creek according to the EPA, and give the water a distinctly green tinge. Also present are tons of PCB’s from coal and oil gasification and countless toxic dry-cleaning, animal processing and manufacturing agents.
“It’s not a homologous thing,” says Waxman. “It’s actually disturbingly heterogeneous.”
Toxins may not be the only horror lurking in the estimated 15-20 foot-thick sediment layer.
“I tell you,” says Waxman. “I was talking to a bunch of cops….they were just saying that when they start dredging here that it’s just gonna spill out bodies.”
The NYPD’s cold case load won’t be lightened anytime soon, though. The EPA dredging Waxman refers to is a long way off. The pollutants are of such startling variety that it will take the federal agency five to six years just to analyze them for each separate substance, according to Caroline Kwan, the Superfund project manager for the creek.
Perhaps nowhere are the layers of toxins thicker, or more concentrated, than in English Kill.
Here, the sediments are pushed by a mild estuarine current from points farther up along the creek, drifting down, down, until finally, faced with a concrete rectangular dead-end, they promptly run out of transportation options and amass in deep drifts. The resulting piles of collected sludge are visible sometimes just inches from the surface.
When the odd tug motors down English Kill to harbor, the sediments are stirred from the bottom, and the gases trapped within show their displeasure by bubbling up to the surface and releasing fumes that overpower even the exhaust emitted from the rushing traffic on English Kill’s only span, the Metropolitan Avenue Bridge.
The EPA’s Superfund program was designed to remove sediments like these, says Caroline Kwan. But even she is “staggered” by the variety, and the scope of the project is daunting. The first Superfund community meeting will take place in January,where residents and officials can have their say about dredging and testing concerns.
We will probably be presenting our war plan” at that community meeting, Kwan predicted.
A big part of that plan for Newtown Creek is safety: Kwan says the EPA will be embarking onto the water “fully geared up” for a hazardous area, “like September 11”, and that she and other workers will endure medical monitoring every year afterward, including “eye, breathing and blood and urine tests”, to name a few.
Waxman and others in the Newtown Creek Alliance are happy about the big move by the federal government. But he is concerned about where the toxic sediments will go.
“I’m sure that EPA is gonna do it in the safest possible manner,” he said. “But I wanna know: who’s gonna inherit our sins? Is it gonna be dug out and buried in a coal mine in Pennsylvania? You know, what did they do to us?”
The answer, according to Ben Conetta, the EPA’s Remedial Project Manager for the Hudson River PCB Superfund site, is actually pretty straightforward: the material will be disposed of in a landfill.
In summer and fall 2009, Conetta oversaw the first stage of a predicted five to seven seasons of dredging at the old General Electric site. The sediments there differed from Newtown Creek in that they were overwhelmingly PCB’s – petrochemicals – with other toxins less representative. After the “really hot” (above 50 parts per million contaminated with PCB) wastes were dewatered at a land facility EPA built near the river, he says the nearly solid sediments were then dispatched by rail to “licensed hazardous waste landfills” in Texas, Utah and other states.
Conetta remembers that the Texas facility also handled nuclear waste.
“There were certain folks that weren’t too happy with that,” he remembers. “But you gotta find a place. And they can’t just stay here.”
“Ultimately, the problem in the creek is that there’s no flow,” says Waxman, who frequently leads groups, politicians and other interested citizens up and down the entire route, pointing out the sights and delving into sordid history. (He also photographs the forgotten waterway and blogs frequently about creek history at www.newtownpentacle.com
“You have a little bit of tidal action that’s coming off the East River,” he continues. “But it doesn’t penetrate back here. And very often you’ll see rather large fish that have got entrapped in here and actually drowned.”
The lack of flow and the thickness of the sediments mean that the fish can’t derive enough oxygen to live here, he explains. As he speaks, a lank old tabby with matted fur and the look of a street tough slinks over the slime-coated black rocks down to the water’s edge to investigate.
“That’s actually what those cats are looking for now,” he says, grinning morosely.
The city has attempted various fixes to the root problem of flow at Newtown Creek. Near the English Kill bridge at Metropolitan Avenue, in fact, there is a large, new-looking air compressor building sitting on a bulkhead. The compressor is part of the city Department of Environmental Protection’s 2000 Citywide Combined Sewage Overflow Abatement Plan – ordered by New York’s State Environmental Review Process (SERP).
Clearly visible underwater pipes lead from the compressor building and burrow into the sludge near the bottom. Fine bubble diffusers attached to the pipe ends then burble the generated air through the murk.
The idea, according to the DEP’s plan, is to aerate the worst areas of the creek by increasing the dissolved oxygen concentration – not unlike how a bubble wand works to clean a fish tank – which in turn would theoretically make the water at least safe for the passage of river life, if not for recreation.
It is unclear whether the agency’s officials think the air compressors are working (DEP officials did not respond to requests for comment.) But the afore-mentioned 2008-2009 Citywide Statement of Needs did call for an expansion of these aeration facilities into lower English Kill, and also into Dutch Kill near the creek’s mouth.
An in -“tract”-able problem?
But lack of flow and toxic sediments don’t even begin to touch the depth of English Kill’s problems. Not exactly helping matters, Newtown Creek’s largest combined sewage outfall, or CSO – euphemistically referred to on a green city warning sign as a “Wet Weather Discharge Point” – regularly coughs raw human waste into the tributary.
“At various times the water has tested positive for cholera, for gonnorhea, for typhus,” says Waxman. “There’s any number of gut pathogens in the water at any given moment.”
Various proposals have been made to alleviate these English Kills overflows, caused by the area’s inadequate sewage treatment and pipe systems.
One plan, proposed in the 2008-2009 Citywide Statement of Needs, called for construction of a nine million-gallon “CSO Storage Facility” along 3.2 vacant acres of Morgan Avenue. The facility would reroute some of the storm-generated overflow that would normally end up in the waterway back to the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant – a distance of over two miles – via gravity or pumping.
Nine million gallons sure sounds like a lot. But it turns out to be distressingly inadequate to the real challenge.
The city DEP itself notes on its website that existing sewage treatment plants in the city can be overwhelmed by as little as a tenth of an inch of rain because of the basic impermeability of so much pavement and metal. And, just here at this single CSO at English Kills, according to the agency, over 600 million gallons of sewage annually discharges into the water.
Furthermore, during a storm event, the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant will likely be dealing with its own overflow problems from Long Island City in Queens, east Manhattan and Brooklyn, so no guarantee exists that they could handle the extra millions of gallons English Kills could collect.
Glimmers of Hope
But all is not doom and gloom for Newtown Creek. A convergence of factors, some accidental, some the result of economic and political forces, occurred in the region over the past six years that has removed the idea of the creek’s restoration from the realm of fantasy.
In the crowded basement of the Greenpoint Polish and Slavic Center just before Thanksgiving weekend, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s oil remediation panel sat in folding chairs facing a crowd of residents and political leaders.Among the attendees at this evening meeting were City Councilman Steven Levin, State Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, and Evelyn Cruz, chief of staff for Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez.
At the lectern, Attorney General staff lawyer Mylan Denerstein combed over, in explicit detail, a Powerpoint explaining the details of the Nov. 17th settlement reached between the state and Exxon-Mobil.
The settlement requires Exxon-Mobil to pay the entire cost of the cleanup of the oil spill that has been oozing and glorping in the aquifer underneath Greenpoint for the better part of sixty years, plus $25 million to the community of Greenpoint for environmental benefit projects – an amount the attorney general’s office says is the largest environmental benefit payout in state history.
For the first time in the long history of consent decrees issued against the multi-billion dollar company, explains Denerstein, there will be a strict timeline for the cleanup, enforced by a federal district judge. Also for the first time, she says, “this settlement covers all media, meaning soil, vapor, groundwater, and of course, the oil.”
Denerstein was referrring to huge plume of oil swirling just underneath Greenpoint in an abandoned aquifer. The spill, leaking slowly over decades, has been estimated at 17 million gallons by the Coast Guard team who first investigated it, then revised by later investigators at up to 30 million gallons. This makes it the single largest oil spill in American history until the 2010 BP Gulf disaster, blowing away the next worst spill, the Exxon-Valdez in Alaska.
Worsening this particular spill was its insidious underground progress, worsened by historical degradation of the aquifer.
Until 1947, notes a 2007 EPA report on the Greenpoint oil spill, most of Brooklyn pumped their drinking water directly out of the Brooklyn groundwater, which included the vast aquifer under Greenpoint. But due to rapid population expansion and manmade industrial projects that cut off natural replenishing sources, by the early part of the 20th century this aquifer was sucked almost dry.
Parts of the dried-out aquifer then cracked and collapsed, creating a “cone of depression” that actually shifted the flow of groundwater away from Newtown Creek. The myriad oil spills from degraded storage bulkheads along the creek then seeped relentlessly into the underground nooks and crannies vacated by the reversed water.
By the time the aquifer’s groundwater naturally restored decades later, the oil had thoroughly invaded and was several feet thick in some areas. When the flow reversed again toward the creek, it carried with it vast tons of the foul oil, which invaded the creek and caused huge plumes that were first spotted from the air by a passing Coast Guard helicopter in 1979.
Despite the spectacular nature of its discovery, almost nobody from outside Queens or Brooklyn had ever heard of this spill, until it started to receive national press a few years back as a result of new pressures from environmental groups and local politicians.
But longtime Greenpoint resident Mike Hofmann and his wife Laura both say it has been a constant cause of concern in the community for decades.
“There was a lot of knowledge about it,” Hofmann says. “But nobody said anything about it. Greenpoint was off the map, you know. But now everybody from Manhattan is coming.”
Hofmann remembers well the previous consent orders ExxonMobil agreed to with the NYS DEC in 1990. He says they were full of unenforced deadlines, pay-what-you-will clauses, and no guarantees of full cleanup.
“There was no time limit on the consent decree. Nothing.” says Hofmann.
There were also very few community information meetings, he says, and those that did occur were limited by a lack of freedom.
“The last consent decree that we had, DEC ran the meeting,” said Hofmann, referring to a 1996 community meeting held jointly by the NYS DEC and ExxonMobil. “So you weren’t really getting information from Exxon-Mobil.”
That all changed in 2004, though, when the regional environmental group Riverkeeper contacted Hofmann and his wife to ask if they would be plaintiffs in a suit they were filing against Exxon-Mobil. According to Cuomo’s office press releases, the attorney general got on board in 2007, joining with Riverkeeper and filing an additional state lawsuit against the oil giant.
ExxonMobil has consistently contested the assertion that they should be the main target of litigation, seeing that so many other oil storage units operated on the creek historically – including BP/Amoco/Peerless and Chevron/Texaco/Paragon, both of whom have done some oil cleanup.
But so far, according to an EPA report based on NYS DEC data, the weight of the evidence “points to Exxon/Mobil as the most likely responsible party based on hydrocarbon forensics analysis, product thickness on the ground water, the direction of ground water flow and the seeps originating at the bulkhead adjacent to their property.” (ExxonMobil did not respond to repeated email queries regarding the settlement and other activities surrounding the lawsuits).
Hofmann says that lawyers for ExxonMobil contacted he and his wife seeking depositions for the Riverkeeper and Cuomo suit. He was immediately suspicious.
“We flat-out told ‘em no,” he says. “They wanted to know who we talked to – in our whole lifetime, who we talked to about the oil spill….they wanna confuse you, you know. ‘You said this that time’, that kinda thing, you know. That’s why we said no. No depositions.”
Hofmann and his wife Laura are convinced that the specific and sometimes unusual types of cancers and illnesses they have seen among friends and relatives in Greenpoint are the direct result of the spill and its legacy of toxic vapors.
Laura Hofmann’s mother died of brain cancer, while her father had Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, a rare neurological disorder. While the cause of the disorder is unknown, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke’s website identifies a theory that an unknown chemical “slowly damage certain vulnerable areas of the brain”, leading to the palsy.
And several studies by The EPA recognized vapor infiltration from the spill as the greatest potential threat to health from the underground plumes.
ExxonMobil itself began high-tech vapor extraction from soils at several sites in Greenpoint after their own 2006 and 2007 studies, backing up previous EPA testing, found high levels of toxic methane and potentially carcinogenic benzene gases rising through weak spots in the clay layer underlying residence.
The EPA, under the Superfund rules, can only deal with sediments in the creek and specifically does not deal with petroleum in the outlying neighborhoods, according to Caroline Kwan. While her office is looking forward to working with the DEC and the neighborhood groups in negotiating clean-up sites, “we ourselves cannot order a cleanup of petroleum,” she said.
So Riverkeeper and the attorney general’s office stepped in. According to Mylam Denerstein, the new consent decree calls for the investigation and evaluation of these vapor sites, along with other sources of pollution, within 90 days of the state court signing the order.
But so far there has been little discussion of the unknown medical harm the spill has caused to the community.
“There has been no health study done in this neighborhood that has pinpointed health effects,” said Laura Hofmann to the panel during the meeting. After she spoke, Assemblyman Joseph Lentol rose to acknowledge her.
“The health studies promulgated so far have been woefully inadequate,” said Lentol. “The state should find the money to do a comprehensive health study of this community.”
Rami Metal, Councilman Steven Levin’s community liason for Greenpoint and Williamsburg, says that many people in the neighborhood are concerned about the stigma attached to Superfund and the Riverkeeper lawsuits and it’s effect on their property values.
“It’s just like, pick your poison, literally,” said Metal. “The neighborhood’s not wealthy. Most people’s money is in their house. So for the most part, people aren’t going to leave.”
“The first thing we’re concerned about is health,” he said. “But you don’t have to go off like ‘Chicken Little’.”