Newtown Creek Clean-Up Efforts

Newtown Creek pollutionNewtown Creek, the 3.5 mile-long waterway that separates Brooklyn and Queens, is one of the most polluted industrial sites in America. The creek water contains hundreds of years of discarded toxins, an estimated 30 million gallons of spilled oil, and raw sewage from New York City’s antiquated sewer system. To make matters worse, there is no current in the creek, and over the years the sludge has congealed into a 15-foot thick layer of “black mayonnaise” on the creekbed.

Creek advocates like the Newtown Creek Alliance and Riverkeeper argue the creek could be a wonderful recreational waterway for New York City. They imagine a marina and access to the creek’s banks. But before that can happen, the creek needs to be cleaned up. So what effort has been made to restore Newtown Creek? Here are brief descriptions of the most significant remediation plans to date.

E.P.A. Superfund Program (2008)

In July and August 2008, Reps. Nydia Velázquez and Anthony Weiner, along with Sen. Hillary Clinton, called on the E.P.A. to conduct tests of contaminated hot spots on Newtown Creek in order to determine whether the site qualifies for federal cleanup money as part of the E.P.A.’s Superfund program. The Superfund program was established in 1982 to address abandoned hazardous waste sites. It gives the E.P.A. the authority to clean up polluted sites and compel parties responsible for pollution to reimburse the government for the expense of remediation. In response to the pressure from Velázquez, Weiner, and Clinton, the E.P.A. agreed to assess the data concerning the creek’s contamination. If the E.P.A. designates Superfund status to Newtown Creek, the federal government could pay as much as $15 million (90 percent) of the clean up effort. Elizabeth Totman, the E.P.A.’s Superfund and Emergency Response press officer, told The City Concealed: “As of right now [December 2008], EPA is developing a sampling plan. We hope to start sampling in the next 8 weeks.”

Oil Company Consent Agreements and Lawsuits (1990 – Present)

Newtown Creek was the site of America’s first oil refinery: Astral Oil, established by Charles Pratt in 1867. Since then, oil has been refined or stored along the creek by a number of corporations, including giants Standard Oil, Amoco, and British Petroleum (see MotherJonesNewtown Creek oil spill timeline). For over a hundred years, none of the major oil corporations had been held accountable for the millions of gallons of oil deposited into the creek by seepage, gas explosions, and pipe leaks. Finally, in 1990, after at least 95,000 gallons of oil had been extracted from the creek by pumps installed in the late 1970s, ExxonMobil (formerly Standard Oil) signed a consent agreement with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in which the company pledged to clean up its own waterfront property and some of the spillage beneath residential neighborhoods in Greenpoint.

Newtown Creek sewageJust how much of the creek ExxonMobil has actually cleaned up remains a point of contention today. Some sources say 9.5 million gallons, while others offer a far lower number. Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that ExxonMobil claimed it has removed about half of the spilled oil. But the Riverkeeper foundation, in a 2004 lawsuit filed against ExxonMobil, argued otherwise: “Due to a series of major spills in the 1940s and 1950s and nearly half a century of wanton neglect, a massive 17 million gallon plume [recently estimated to be almost 30 million gallons] of oil migrated into the creek and under the Greenpoint community. A weak consent order with the State of New York in 1990 demanded no penalties, set no benchmarks for cleanup, and allowed ExxonMobil to conduct the most rudimentary remediation. As a result of the main consent order, only 3 million gallons have been removed since operations started, and progress is slowing considerably.”

After Riverkeeper’s lawsuit, more oil companies — including BP and Chevron — entered into consent agreements with the NYDEC similar to ExxonMobil’s, and in June 2007, ExxonMobil resumed operation of its dormant recovery pumps. But it was too little too late. A month later, New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo filed a lawsuit against ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, KeySpan and Phelps Dodge that sought to force the companies to clean up Newtown Creek and the polluted soil under Greenpoint. [Status update TK, I’ve got a call out to the State AG’s office.]

Newtown Creek Sewage Treatment Plant (2008)

The seventeen to thirty million gallons of “black mayonnaise” and oil lurking in Newtown Creek receive the bulk of the media attention, but New York City’s combined sewage overflow system (CSO) makes a significant contribution to creek pollution. Basically, CSOs collect both wastewater from buildings and storm runoff. When it rains, the CSOs become overloaded, dumping runoff, garbage, chemicals, and raw sewage into New York City’s waterways, including Newtown Creek. In November 2008, New York City and State officials announced a commitment to bring the recently-overhauled Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant (a sprawling, 53-acre facility built in 1967 to treat solid waste flowing through the city’s CSO system before being released into open water) into compliance with the requirements enumerated in the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (Clean Water Act) .

What Could Have Been: The 2012 Summer Olympic Bid (2005)

When New York City lost the 2012 Summer Olympic bid to London, Newtown Creek lost what may have been its best chance for remediation. Hunter’s Point, situated on the Queens side of Newtown Creek, was one of the proposed sites for the Olympic Village. As you can see from this slideshow of finalists for the Olympic Village design, the development would have necessitated a significant cleanup effort along the creek. In February 2005, when a 13-member International Olympic Committee evaluation team arrived to survey proposed Olympic Village sites, Reuters noted: “The Department of Health reports [Newtown Creek and the surrounding area’s] asthma, emphysema and bronchitis rates are 25 percent higher than in the rest of the city.” Jay Kriegel, executive director of NYC2012, the non-profit organization in charge of New York City’s Olympic bid, responded, “It’s clearly an issue that we’re well aware of. It’s an environmental situation that is being dealt with, but if we get the Olympics it would become a major priority and there would be an aggressive program to accelerate action.” The rest is history, and when the Games open in London four years from now, Newtown Creek will likely remain a cesspool.

Watch a New York Voices segment about cleaning up the creek.

Photos: Bernard Ente, Newtown Creek Alliance.