Would Initiate Federal Cleanup of Toxic Waterway
By Conor Greene
The Environmental Protection Agency is considering the heavily polluted Newtown Creek for Superfund status, which would allow federal authorities to move forward with a long-awaited cleanup of the waterway, which runs between Brooklyn and Queens.
The EPA announced last week that officials have nominated the 3.8-mile stretch of creek, which separates Greenpoint and Maspeth and is considered the most polluted waterway in the city, for its National Priorities List. Doing so would allow the EPA to build on the extensive sampling of the creek that has already been completed.
“Newtown Creek is one of the most grossly contaminated waterways in the country,” said Acting Regional Administrator George Pavlou. “By listing the creek, EPA can focus on doing the extensive sampling needed to figure out the best way to address the contamination and see the work through.”
Designating the Newtown Creek as a Superfund site would allow the EPA to use taxpayer money to fund a cleanup, and to charge individuals responsible for causing the pollution as well as current property owners. The site’s contamination includes a 30-million gallon oil spill discovered by a Coast Guard helicopter in 1978 that has been found across 55 acres, including beneath area homes and businesses.
The spill, which is three times larger than the Exxon Valdez incident, has been lamed on the area’s industrial past, which at one time saw more than 50 industrial facilities along the banks, and on a 1950 industrial explosion. Currently, ExxonMobil and several other companies are working with the federal government on programs to remediate portions of the spill.
News that the creek is being considered for Superfund status was welcomed by two of the area’s representatives in Congress, Anthony Weiner (D-Forest Hills) and Nydia Velazquez (D-Brooklyn), who have fought for years to direct federal resources to clean the area up. In a press release, Weiner noted that the area surrounding the Newtown Creek is home to more than 446,000 residents and a number of schools, parks and hospitals.
“I am pleased to see that while the oil companies lag in their cleanup responsibilities and put the health and safety of Newtown Creek’s residents at further risk, the EPA has decided to take action and hold these companies responsible for their negligence,” said Weiner. “Newtown Creek is the single most polluted waterway in New York City, a legacy left by more than a century of heavy industrial activity.”
In the mid-1800s, the area adjacent to the creek was one of the busiest hubs of industrial activity in the city, with dozens of oil refineries, petrochemical plants, fertilizer and glue factories, sawmills and lumber and coal yards. In the early 1990s, the state determined that Newtown Creek was not meeting water quality standards under the Clean Water Act.
Since then, the EPA has worked to collect data from the entire length of the creek that has been used to determine the actual extent of the pollution. Various sediment and surface water samples taken along the creek have revealed the presence of pesticides, metals, PCBs and volatile organic compounds, which are potentially harmful contaminations that can easily evaporate into the air.
Now that the site has been nominated to the National Priorities List, a 60-day public comment period has begun. If the area is designated a Superfund site, a four-step process will be initiated to clean up the area. The site would first undergo immediate stabilization to stop any immediate threats to the community, before the EPA performs a comprehensive investigation of the site and analyzes clean up options. The EPA would then develop a plan to clean up the site, which would be carried out by the agency or by responsible parties the federal government could force to do the work.
“The contamination in and around Newtown Creek is of catastrophic proportions and Greenpoint residents have suffered the consequences for too long,” said Velazquez. “Inclusion in the EPA’s National Priorities List may help determine the best approach for cleaning up the creek. As the process continues, I look forward to examining the data as well as working with federal, state and city officials to identify a comprehensive plan to reclaim the pride of Brooklyn’s waterfront and protect New Yorkers.”