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Wednesday, January 18, 2017   3:58 GMT
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New Push to Clean Toxic Hotspot
Sam Cassanos

NEW YORK, 28 Jul (IPS) - Two New York City Congressional representatives are calling for Newtown Creek, one of the country's most polluted waterways, to be tested for the high levels of toxic chemicals that would qualify it for Superfund clean-up.

Superfund is a federal remediation programme for endemically polluted sites established in 1982. If the creek receives the designation, as much as 90 percent of the clean-up costs could be covered by the federal government, a sum estimated at 15 million dollars.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which implements Superfund, is now reviewing the request from Reps. Anthony Weiner and Nydia Valazquez. According to Superfund press officer Elizabeth Totman, the agency will present a response to the request in the 'near future'. One of the issues the review will consider is the efficacy of the current remediation efforts. 'They are asking us to become the lead in the cleanup,' said Totman. 'It would make sense before we jump in to see if there is anything that should be done to improve on what the state is doing.'

The tests Weiner and Valazquez are seeking would assess the threat to human health and the environment from Newtown Creek and ultimately determine if it is eligible for Superfund designation. This investigation, known as a 'hazard ranking', assigns a numerical variable to the threat posed by four different sources: ground water, surface water, soil exposure, and air migration.

These statistics are combined to determine an overall site score. If the site under investigation receives a high enough score, it receives Superfund designation and is placed on the National Priorities list.

Located between Brooklyn and Queens, Newtown Creek is the site of the largest oil spill in U.S. history. In 1978, after a coastguard helicopter spotted an oil slick on the creek, it was discovered that Mobil and other oil companies had let an estimated 17 million gallons of oil seep out of its properties and into the water. The spill, which covered 55 acres, is at 50 percent larger than the infamous Exxon Valdez incident.

A major reason Superfund designation has been suggested is that the creek's problems are vaster and more complex than even this oil spill would indicate. Newtown Creek bears the burden of centuries of industrial development in the neighbourhoods that border it. Many of the companies responsible for the creek's contamination are now defunct and cannot be held accountable for the costs of remediation.

Shipbuilding yards were Newtown creek's first major industrial neighbour, but textile factories, leather tanneries, and copper smelting, to name just a few, soon followed. However, more than any other industry, the petroleum refineries in nearby Greenpoint, Brooklyn have had the most damaging effect on the creek.

From 1866 until 1966, petroleum was refined in Greenpoint. Many of the major oil companies, including British Petroleum, Amoco, and Standard Oil (the predecessor of ExxonMobil), operated in the neighbourhood. In the 1940s oil began to leak into the sewage pipes along the creek. In 1950, the gasoline ignited with the underground sewage and shot 25 manhole covers as high as three stories in the air, shattering 500 windows.

In addition to suffering from generations of industrial pollution, Newtown Creek's problems are compounded by New York City's Combined Sewage Overflow system. The system takes the excess sewage that the main system cannot handle and feeds it into Newtown Creek, adding street runoff, garbage, oil, and raw sewage to the already contaminated water.

Tests in Greenpoint have shown that there are toxic vapours, containing the carcinogenic chemical benzene, beneath the surface. However, the effect of the pollution on the area's public health has yet to be fully determined.

A situation such as this, in which a large number of companies, many of them no longer in existence, as well as the city government, are all polluters, is 'exactly the type of situation Superfund was designed for', said Katie Schmidt. director of the grassroots Newtown Creek Alliance.

Schmidt told IPS that the federal Superfund addresses problems in which responsibility for the damage is not immediately clear, but can be established after the proper remediation has taken place. 'If we got a commitment from the federal government under Superfund,' she said, 'the idea would be that we would clean up Newtown Creek and make determinations over what came from what company, and rather than litigate everyone would decide on a payment plan.'

Environmental activists, as well as the City and State governments, have been working for decades to restore Newtown Creek but their efforts have yielded only partial success. ExxonMobil reached a consent agreement with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in 1990 and has removed an estimated 9.5 million gallons of oil from the creek.

However, both the terms of the agreement and its implementation have been criticised. The deal did not require ExxonMobil to compensate the communities affected by the pollution it is responsible for, nor is the company required to meet any benchmarks during the course of the remediation. A September 2007 New York Times editorial accused the Department of not being aggressive enough in enforcing the agreement's terms.

To make matters worse, the project has created new environmental problems. In 2007, the environmental group Riverkeeper and several co-plaintiffs filed suit against ExxonMobil for discharging millions of gallons of contaminated and carcinogen laden water into the creek.

The quest for corporate accountability has been an ongoing saga led by activist groups and elected politicians. In 2004, Riverkeeper, along with the Brooklyn borough president and two New York City Council members, filed a suit against ExxonMobil. New York State Attorney General Anthony Cuomo also filed a suit against the same company in 2007 in order to get it to expedite remediation efforts.

Activists welcomed the potential Superfund designation as being complementary to the lawsuits still in progress. 'Many people active in the environment in the New York community have no idea about this spill,' said Ethan Orginel, editor of the environmental website 'Federal designation would be very useful in creating a critical mass of awareness, where basically those who are responsible cannot sit back and do nothing.'

The current state of the creek is an improvement from its past condition. David Freeman, who grew up in Greenpoint but now visits the neighbourhood only occasionally, remembers the creek being 'much cloudier' and dotted with pools of rust during the 1960s and 70s.

In those days, Freeman says, he and his friends would swim in the creek's polluted waters. He regards the current situation as a 'vast improvement' from the creek of his youth.

Despite these improvements, Newtown Creek is unpleasant to live by. On many evenings, residents of Greenpoint still endure the smell of raw sewage that emanates from the waterway.

'On a bad day, everybody smells it,' said Brian Hersey, whose apartment on Nassau Avenue, nearly a mile away from the water, is still within reach of its odour.

For Hersey, Newtown Creek's pollution problem is a reminder of Brooklyn's history as an industrial centre. 'As Brooklyn's past is disappearing, it would be nice to clean it up,' he said, adding that he is doubtful that the creek will receive the remediation that it deserves.



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