Newtown Creek, one of the most polluted bodies of water in North America, is showing signs of life.
After more than 150 years of industrial-grade abuse, the 3.8-mile waterway on the Brooklyn-Queens border in New York City is slowly becoming home to wetland plants, fish and waterfowl.
It can only get better. Last year the Environmental Protection Agency placed Newtown Creek on its Superfund National Priorities List, identifying the waterway as a hazardous waste site and a prime candidate for major remedial action. This summer the agency launched the first phase of a long and expensive cleanup.
“The contamination of Newtown Creek is a real insight into the industrial history of New York,” says Katie Schmid, founder and director of the Newtown Creek Alliance, which encourages local businesses and residents to get involved in restoring the health of the creek and its environs.
In the latter half of the 19th century the area was dense with industry -- glue and fat-rendering plants, coal yards, oil refineries, petrochemical operations. More than 500 enterprises lined the creek in the 1900s, and during World War II it was one of the busiest industrial ports in the Northeast.
In 1978, the Coast Guard discovered a gigantic oil plume in the creek, later revealed to be a decades-long leak of as much as 30 million gallons.
“It’s still being polluted today,” says Schmid. “Close to 3 billion gallons of CSO -- combined sewer overflow -- goes into the creek every year. That includes raw sewage.” It happens almost every time it rains, Schmid says.
The EPA estimates that 1 million cubic yards of creek sediment is fouled with heavy metals, pesticides and volatile organic compounds. Health advisories posted along the creek warn pregnant women not to “eat fish or eels caught in these waters,” and advise others to exercise caution.
Although the name suggests a small stream, Newtown Creek is about 100 yards wide and more than 18 feet deep. Schmid took me on a land-side tour of the waterway, where we saw gulls, white egrets, and a blue heron.
The creek actually looks quite good. Some public-access points are downright inviting and a small park at the end of Manhattan Avenue is a great picnic spot.
The Nature Walk, designed by environmental sculpture artist George Trakas, fronts the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. It isn’t only a work of art. Its partially submerged steps are attracting organisms, some of which -- like certain wetland grasses -- can help clean the water naturally.
Biology professor Sarah Durand has been taking ecology students to the waterway since 2009.
“We were amazed to see little animals you’d see in a tidal wetland,” she says. “Tiny clams, green worms, fiddler crabs, grass shrimp -- the amazing thing is the amount of life in a Superfund site, where there is nothing to support a natural habitat.”
The beauty of the Superfund designation is that it holds polluters responsible, and they will have to help pay for cleanup. So far, six parties are on the hook: Phelps Dodge Refining Corp., Texaco Inc., BP Products North America Inc., National Grid NY, ExxonMobil Oil Corp. and the City of New York.
It is premature to estimate what the massive cleanup will cost. The parties have put up $750,000 so far -- money the EPA had already spent on the creek -- but the first phase of the cleanup, determining the nature and scope of the damage, has only just begun and will take years to complete. The agency believes it will find other responsible parties as well.
Defanging the EPA
It’s hard to imagine how Newtown Creek and other waterways in industrial zones would fare without the EPA’s regulatory protections, yet there is no shortage of lawmakers and presidential wannabes who would defang the agency.
In July, House Republicans larded up an appropriations bill with dozens of provisions to weaken environmental regulations. In debates with other presidential aspirants, Rep. Michele Bachmann has proposed to abolish the “job-killing agency.” Her rivals largely endorse such a proposal.
Politics aside, the Superfund mechanism is the best means we have to restore some balance to a system that would otherwise privatize profits but socialize losses, where external costs like cleaning up Newtown Creek are absorbed by the rest of us.
On the Metropolitan Avenue Bridge, Schmid and I were admiring the waterfowl on the creek when a well-dressed woman emerged from a car to toss a large plastic bag of something over the side before driving off.
Schmid sighed. “A lot of people still see the creek as a gutter.” Hopefully that attitude will change with a cleaner body of water.
(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)