Just across the East River from midtown Manhattan’s shimmering skyscrapers sits one of the nation’s most polluted neighborhoods, fouled by generations of industrial waste, overflow from the city’s sewage system and an underground oil leak bigger than the Exxon Valdez spill.
It’s easy to see — and smell — the filth in and around Newtown Creek, which runs through an area of working-class homes, warehouses and industrial lots straddling Brooklyn and Queens. The odor of petroleum mixes with the smell of sewage, particularly on rainy days when the city’s treatment plants can’t handle the volume and municipal pipes send trash and human waste straight into the creek.
Oily, rainbow-slicked water is filled with soda cans, plastic bottles, raw sewage and decaying food. Ditched vehicles are stuck in the mud on the banks. And what was once a creek teeming with fish, surrounded by marshland, is now a dull gray waterway that cannot sustain life.
“It’s the byproduct of our society,” says environmentalist John Lipscomb of the Riverkeeper clean-water advocacy group. “What was originally a watershed is now a sewage shed.”
After generations of neglect, the first, small steps are being taken in a multi-pronged cleanup that could take at least a dozen years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But even the most hopeful officials acknowledge the watershed may never be clear of all pollutants.
For much of the 20th century, the neighborhood teemed with commercial vessels and factories that made products as varied as fertilizers, chemicals, lumber and glue. Their oil and other hazardous waste was either dumped or leaked into the creek, bit by bit, accumulating at the bottom.
The first sign of the looming ecological disaster came on Oct. 5, 1950, when petroleum gases from the hidden spill seeped into the sewer and caught fire, causing an explosion that blew dozens of manhole covers three stories into the air, shattering windows in hundreds of buildings and ripping a street open. Three people were injured.
But decades would pass before the creek got any real attention.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared Newtown Creek a Superfund site in 2010 — “one of the most polluted urban water bodies in the country,” according to EPA regional administrator Judith Enck.
Today, the creek’s bottom is lined with a 15-foot-thick layer of petroleum-based pollutants that scientists have dubbed “black mayonnaise.” The ooze penetrated the shoreline and now sits on top of the water table dozens of feet under Brooklyn’s gentrifying Greenpoint neighborhood.
Scientists are using sonar to probe the muck in the 3.5-mile waterway in hopes of determining the best way to conduct the cleanup, which will be financed by six entities that inherited the pollution: Exxon Mobil, Texaco Inc., the Phelps Dodge Refining Corp., BP Products North America Inc., National Grid NY and the city of New York.
A separate cleanup targets the Greenpoint underground oil spill, which covers the equivalent of about 55 football fields. By some estimates, the oil spilled there amounted to as much as 30 million gallons.
Exactly how so much oil spread through the ground is still a question, but one thing is certain, according to the EPA: The sources of the spill were dozens of oil refineries and storage tanks built along the banks of Newtown Creek starting in the 1860s. Their petroleum and waste discharges leaked or were dumped into both the soil and the water at a time when there was little regulation or oversight. Some may have come from ships carrying the oil.
Under terms of a 2010 settlement with then-New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and a related agreement with Riverkeeper, Exxon Mobil agreed to pay $19.5 million for projects to benefit the area’s environment. The question of who will pay for the creek’s entire cleanup will be answered after preliminary EPA studies are done.