State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

, ,

Another Superfund Site in New York City: Newtown Creek to Get a Makeover

The March designation of the Gowanus Canal in New York City as a Superfund clean-up site was an important step forward, and is now being followed by a leap: on Monday Newtown Creek, which runs between Queens and Brooklyn received the same designation.

Newtown Creek. Source: Google Maps

The Newtown Creek is a four mile long waterway that empties into the East River, and is surrounded by a mostly industrial corridor.  That corridor has been the site of intense economic activity over the last 150 plus years, and in what seems an almost inevitable corollary, the site of intense pollution.  The creek has been receiving the effluent of oil refineries, petrochemical plants, fertilizer and glue factories, sawmills, and lumber and coal yards – not to mention raw sewage.

The New York Times reported on one particularly bad oil spill by Exxon Mobil 57 years ago, estimated at between 17 million to 30 million gallons lost into the waterway and into the ground at Greenpoint.  Efforts to clean up the contamination resting under the feet of residents have been going on for years, but will get an added boost now. Philip Musagass, a lawyer with Riverkeeper, told the Times, “The impact is more subtle than in the gulf. The spill is unseen, and it’s in an area that was industrialized and already polluted. But the waterway is severely stressed, and it’s not a functioning ecosystem anymore.”

Newtown Creek. Source: Newtown Creek Alliance, which offers boat tours of the waterway

In the canal itself, the water is polluted, but the harder problem is that the sediment at its floor has been absorbing and accumulating toxins all this time.  According to an EPA statement, initial tests found pesticides, metals and PCBs, as well as volatile organic compounds that can evaporate into the air.

The detailed study that goes with Superfund designation will determine the specific cleanup methods, but they will probably include dredging the canal floor and transporting the toxic mess to a landfill in someone else’s neighborhood.  The creek has taken 150 years to get into this state, and it will probably take at least 15 more to clean up.

Maspeth Creek branch, 2006. Source: Newtown Creek Alliance

The State could not afford to undertake a thorough clean up of Newtown Creek, but the Superfund designation means that Federal authority will be brought to bear to force some of the historic polluters to foot the bill, which could be as much as $500 million.  Some of businesses that will be targeted include BP, Exxon Mobil, National Grid, Chevron, and Phelps Dodge.

This important Superfund designation, along with the Gowanus Canal and Jamaica Bay cleanups, which Water Matters reported on previously, is a recognition of the damage we have done to the environment in New York City.  Not only does the natural environment suffer, but human health is compromised by being surrounded by toxins in the air, earth and water.  Let’s hope this trend toward doing something about it will continue.  Even more, let’s hope it helps industry, policy makers and citizens alike recognize how much cheaper it is to not pollute in the first place, than to have to apologize and clean up later.

See videos of Newtown Creek here.

EDIT:  Great Blue Man Group visit the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Facility video here.

Follow Columbia Water Center on Facebook and Twitter

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
13 years ago

[…] a stinky, toxic, sewer-filled waterway in the heart of Brooklyn. (The Water Center’s Julia Hitz recently reported on Newtown Creek, another New York waterway that now has Superfund […]

13 years ago

[…] Newtown Creek: In September, the EPA added Newtown Creek to the Superfund list, the beginning of a 15 year, $500 million clean-up process. […]

13 years ago

[…] cascade of oil spills, large and small, threaten freshwater resources and seawater alike—from Newtown Creek in the heart of New York City, poisoned by a 17-30 million gallon oil spill 57 years ago to the […]