Thursday, July 24, 2008

Lawmakers Push for Federal Cleanup of Newtown Creek

Weiner and Velazquez Want Feds to Designate the City’s Most Polluted Waterway a Superfund Site

By Conor Greene

Two local lawmakers want the federal government to declare the Newtown Creek a Superfund site, which would provide millions of dollars to help cleanup the city’s most heavily polluted waterway.

The 3.5-mile creek, which runs east from the East River between Queens and Brooklyn, was polluted by as much as 30 million gallons of oil over the course of 150 years of industrial activity, which included the explosion of an oil refinery in 1950. The spill was discovered by the Coast Guard in 1978, and is thought to cover properties on as much as 70 acres in Brooklyn.

Under a remediation plan begin carried out by ExxonMobil due to a court order, about 9.4 million gallons of oil have been removed from the area so far. However, officials estimate it will take until 2026 to finish the remediation effort currently ongoing at the site.

Now, Democratic lawmakers Anthony Weiner and Nydia Velazquez, who each represent parts of Queens in congress, want the area designated as a federal Superfund site. That could make the creek eligible for federal funding to cover up to 90% of the cost – possibility as much as $15 million towards the effort, according to the representatives.

“While the oil companies lag in their cleanup responsibilities, the health and safety of Newtown Creek residents hang in the balance,” said Congressman Weiner. “Testing these four sites will help us find answers to basic questions about the spill’s health risks and give this national environmental disaster national attention.”

At a joint press conference last week, Weiner and Velazquez called on the federal Environmental Protection Agency to conduct preliminary testing at the creek. They argue that if those tests find high levels of toxic chemicals, the entire Newtown Creek could become eligible for inclusion on the national Superfund site list.

Even though the oil spill encompasses an area one-and-a- half times larger than the site of the Exxon Valdez spill, the Newtown Creek has never been tested by the EPA for consideration for inclusion in the Superfund program. At the press conference, Weiner and Velazquez released a letter to the EPA identifying four sites along the creek for federal review, including two former hazardous waste facilities, a former copper smelting plant and a former coal gasification complex.

“It’s time for the EPA to acknowledge that the people who live here already know: the contamination of Newtown Creek is nothing short of a human tragedy,” said Congresswoman Velazquez. “The EPA should use its strongest tools possible to begin remediation. The time to act is now.”

Last September, an EPA report commissioned by Weiner and Velazquez suggested that that size of the spill was likely close to 30 million gallons, not 17 million gallons as thought at the time. It also indicated that the spill could be causing toxic vapors to leak into nearby homes and business. At the current rate that ExxonMobil is cleaning up the site, it could take 25 years to clean just 70% of the contamination, the report found.

State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo sued ExxonMobil and several other companies last year, charging them with creating an “imminent and substantial endangerment to health and the environment” as a result of the slow cleanup process.

“This is one of the worst environmental disasters in the nation, larger than the Exxon Valdez [spill off Alaskan coast] and slower in cleanup,” said Cuomo last year. “The toxic footprint of ExxonMobil is found all over this area. It is ExxonMobil’s oil that remains under the homes and businesses. And it is ExxonMobil that has dragged its feet and done as little as possible to address the dangers it has created.”

That lawsuit is still pending, but Weiner and Velazquez hope that the federal government will now step in and help the creek shed its title as the city’s most polluted waterway. The call for action comes after the House of Representatives passed legislation to have the oil spill fully mapped, so the extent of the creek’s contamination can be determined. If the law is passed in the Senate, the EPA will move forward with the more comprehensive study of the creek since the spill was discovered.

The politicians specifically want the federal government to review the four sites highlighted in their letter: a 44-acre property off 56th Road in Maspeth used by Phelps Dodge; a 37-acre site in Long Island City used by Quanta Resources for waste oil reprocessing; a hazardous waste and oil processing facility at 360 Maspeth Avenue in Brooklyn used by BCF Oil until 1994 and three Brooklyn sites owned by National Grid, which is formerly known as KeySpan.

The Superfund program was created in 1980 and gives the government the authority to force responsible parties to clean contaminated sites. According to Weiner, funding for the program has dropped from $3.8 billion in 1997 to just $178 million last year. He blames the decline in funding on expired taxes on the oil and chemical industries along with an expired corporate environmental income tax.

If the federal government designates the area as a Superfund site, a four-point process would begin. First, a one-year cleanup would immediately stabilize the area to stop any immediate threats to the community. The EPA would then perform a “comprehensive investigation of the site and analyze cleanup options,” a process that takes “months to years” according to Weiner. It would take about two more years to develop a plan for the site, after which the agency would commence with the cleanup, or force a responsible party to do so. On average, the cleanup process takes 8 to 11 years.

Photo by: Steve Garza

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