The Newtown Creek that forms part of the border between Brooklyn and Queens is filled with toxins from a century and a half of industrial activity. An underground oil spill there has been causing problems in Greenpoint, Brooklyn for decades. And then there’s all the human waste and other contaminants that get into the Newtown and other city waterways from sewer overflows. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed making the Newtown Creek a national priority for cleanup by putting the waterway on its Superfund list. City officials and creekside businesses have been raising their concerns at EPA meetings, during the public comment period that lasts until December 23. Federal officials could decide early next year about whether to initiate a cleanup that could take 15 years and cost more than $400 million.
I went out on the Newtown with the group Riverkeeper, which patrols the Hudson waterways from Albany to Brooklyn and supports a Superfund designation. John Lipscomb, the skipper of the R. Ian Fletcher showed me some hard-to-reach areas in the tributaries where garbage isn’t flushed out, and the water is white, or, in one place near the Maspeth Creek, the color of lentil soup:
The further back you get into these systems, the less circulation there is. And also, the fewer people there are. If the water were that color down at Battery Park City, there would be a hell of a lot of noise; people would be screaming about it.
Lipscomb says there hasn’t been much of a constituency for increased water quality here because most of the areas around the Newtown Creek are designated industrial zones. That means there also hasn’t been the kind of opposition from developers and the Bloomberg administration as there has been to the Superfund proposal for Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, which is between two gentrifying neighborhoods.
Still, the skipper says more and more people are now coming into contact with the Newtown Creek, because of fishing piers, new ladders into the water, and a shoreline stairway on the Newtown Creek Nature Walk by the Wastewater Treatment Plant. Lipscomb says the public is increasingly being invited to the water, but isn’t getting good information about the toxicity of the water and any fish caught in the creek. That’s why Riverkeeper does regular sampling around the Newtown and posts the results online. He says upbeat reports about improved water quality in New York City rely on averages, even though what matters are conditions at specific locations.
Environmentalists say the Superfund proposal would only target pollution in the sediment, not the quality of the water itself. They say the real big problem that won’t be remediated by the EPA is the sewer overflows that occur nearly every time it rains. The state and city handle that issue. Kate Zidar, an environmental planner with Newtown Creek Alliance, says there are things officials and local property owners need to figure out regardless of what happens with Superfund.
What can we do with these 6,000 miles of roadbed and the adjacent 12,000 miles of sidewalk that make up a large percentage, about 30 percent of the city's overall surface? If we can crack the nut on how to get water from the gutter into the ground instead of the gutter into the storm drain, that’s something that has legs and can travel.
The city does have a tax credit to encourage green roofs, and a requirement that new parking lots include landscaped areas. Five years ago, the state Department of Environmental Conservation required the city to complete several sewer improvement projects around the city at a cost of $2 billion. But city officials acknowledge that’s just a fraction of the amount of money it would cost to do the kind of overhaul that’s necessary to stop all sewer overflows.
Some creekside business owners have met with city officials and have attended public meetings called by the EPA to express their concern that a Superfund designation could create a “stigma” for the Newtown that would make it difficult for property owners to get financing and insurance. As for the Bloomberg administration, it hasn’t taken a position on the Superfund proposal yet. City officials want assurances from the EPA that a national listing won’t disrupt redevelopment projects the city has planned for both sides of the creek in Greenpoint/Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Hunter’s Point South in Queens.