Newtown Creek, 2011

The following was written a few years ago when I was a graduate journalism student. Still quite proud of it. This is the one and only time it will ever get published.

Take the G train to Greenpoint, the last stop in Brooklyn. Get out of the northwest exit and head down Manhattan Ave, which saunters down a gentle downward slope where you begin to see street names such as Java and India — getting closer to the edge of the borough.

Make a right onto Freeman Street, past the John Smolenski funeral home and keep walking until MacGuiness Blvd slams in front of you, hauling up into Pulaski Bridge. If you walk past Eagle Street you are underneath the bridge, whose underside is ringed with concertina wire and sheet metal while semi-trucks filled with gas rumble by.

The rapid industrialization of New York has led to many things, among them public transit through hundreds of miles of tunnels and two major international airports. Yet between the two largest outer boroughs lies a feature of the progress that built this city that at first glance looks pristine: the four and a half miles of water that separate Queens and Brooklyn known as Newtown Creek, as old as the metropolis itself.

Yet unlike the city’s own tap water, no one would dare drink from it or swim or eat the fish that live in it. Since the nineteenth century, Newtown has held the distinction of being one of the most polluted waterways in the nation, a dubious honor that is undergoing a challenge in recent years and months as environmentalists and regulators work to clean up the messes made a long time ago, as well as the neglect that continues.

Last September, the Environmental Protection Agency declared Newtown a national Superfund site, ranking it among the many hundreds nationwide to its roster of ecologically-damaged places. New York’s Department of Environmental Protection has a facility in Greenpoint, a mammoth wastewater treatment plant.

Long ago, people fished here and vacationed along the banks. After more than a century of development, most of the area is home to heavy industries like metals, rubber and chemicals in a small and concentrated space. The people who work here mill around scrap heaps, some of whose edifices warn of attack dogs on premises, or attach widgets to cranes for an apparatus so immense it defies comprehension, like the ones at the plant. Each of them is another cog, and one among many others.

You reach the northernmost tip of Greenpoint, and thus of Brooklyn, and see a hulking brown-toned brick building, Greepoint Manufacturing & Design. A sign on the parking lot lamppost says IBZ, the letters framed within a gear- shaped icon, with the words below it: INDUSTRIAL BUSINESS ZONE.

Just a dozen or so yards away, seven small sailboats were docked in mid- February along the Queens side of the creek: dark blue, white, light blue, dark blue again, white with crimson on the deck rim, another white one. A small pale green boat docked on the Brooklyn side is dubbed Bonnie Jeanne. The water has a dull green tint. The wind moves it quickly, water lapping Bonnie Jeanne’s hull briskly.

At the corner of Manhattan Ave and Ash Street is a small shop. A man with a bright red nose and dirty blond hair who works there very busily wrung his hands with a rag. He would only call himself Mack. “It’s very polluted,” Mack said. “All the industrial stuff.” With that fragmentary assessment he stuck his head back into the shop and sealed the door shut.

Right around the corner is a small place called the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, whose sign proudly declares: ONLY THE FINEST, PUREST, NATURAL INGREDIENTS. There were no customers back in mid-winter, one Sunday afternoon. Hans Valdiviezo, 20, was leaning back to watch a college basketball game, his hands in his pockets, wearing a striped hoodie, a dark gray cap and blue sneakers. “In the summer people go kayaking,” Valdiviezo said. When asked what would happen if anyone had the misfortune to flip over, he simply shrugged and laughed.

Toward the waterfront, where the State of New York hosts what it calls a nature walkway, a man named Willy Lemanzella stood outside a small sedan. He said the creek may be open this summer—or next year. “It’s being cleaned up,” Lemanzella said, confidently. Then he hopped back in and the car drove off.

Shelly Jones has been working for Alante Security Company for the last four years. Alante patrols a football-field sized sewer water treatment plant run by the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Newtown Creek Water Pollution Control Center. It is a massive complex with enormous pipes the size of the tractor-trailers constantly rumbling around and hauling scrap metal from the yards across Greenpoint Ave.

The slogan adorning St. John’s University — Educatio Christiana Animae Perfectio (Christian Education is Perfection of the Soul) — hung over the gloomy skies over Utopia Parkway in Jamaica, Queens. At a panel in the Joseph Mattone Family Atrium in the St. John’s School of Law on March 31, environmental regulators and an industry attorney explained lessons learned to a small crowd on, as the posterboard read: URBAN RIVERS RESTORATION.

“Superfund is the colloquial name for the federal law passed in 1980 that arranges for the cleanup of hazardous waste sites,” Walter Mugdan said. He’s the Superfund director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 2, which covers the northeast and is based on 290 Broadway, adjacent to the African Burial Ground District in lower Manhattan. His voice boomed the most and his face was most distinctive. He appeared to have a theatrical presence among a panel that also included Paul Gallay of Riverkeeper, who bore a resemblance to Senator Al Franken, and a corporate attorney named Jeffrey Gracer.

Mugdan appeared to be the iconic bureaucrat: confident, steeped in detail, a deep booming theatrical voice that required no microphone. He has worked at the EPA for the last 35 years, to which he added, “But who’s counting?”

Newtown entered the National Priorities List (NPL) in September 2010. For the last seven months, the creek has been listed on the aquatic equivalent of the endangered species list.

An “historic center of industry and commerce,” Mugdan said breezily, “sewage began being dumped there way back in the 1850s—by the way, that was a very forward progressive thing to do if you were a city back in the 1800s and you created a sewage system and there was nowhere else to put it but in the water.”

“Lots of refineries there,” he continued. “Newtown Creek is still active with a considerable amount of industry along much of its length. At its peak, there were over 500 enterprises there, very crowded with commercial vessels, boats bringing stuff in and out.” By the 1870s, more than 50 refineries dotted along the creek and by the early 1900s this number had jumped tenfold.

John Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, later Esso and then ExxonMobil, was determined to be responsible for most of the pollution. “They had a big refinery there, from which came an oil spill that had been oozing for five decades—it’s actually one of the largest oil spills in American history,” Mugdan added, besting the Exxon Valdez disaster, releasing 17 million gallons into the creek. “It all went underground,” he said.

The oil is basically underneath Greenpoint, he added. “ExxonMobil has been pumping out—probably too slowly—for years and will continue to be pumping it out for decades.” The EPA discovered more than one million cubic yards of “contaminated sediment,” filled with heavy metals and PCBs.

“The Superfund law in 1980 did something very radical,” Mugdan explained. “It said, Somebody gotta pay for cleaning up these sites, and rather than having society at large pay for it through taxes, we are going to identify types of entities that are responsible for the cost of the cleanup. By universal custom they are called potentially responsible parties, or PRPs. But by universal courtesy we do not pronounce that as ‘perp.’ They are people who own or operate the site either now or in the past.”

The polluters are known in EPA parlance as “generators.” Mugdan said that “it tends to be the case—although not at all universally true—that generators are likely to include, if you can identify them, companies that have a lot of money.”

“And that’s the goal,” he added. “You need to companies that have a lot of money because cleaning up these sites is enormously expensive.” Cleaning up Newtown could cost Exxon, which posted more than $9 billion in profits for the last quarter of 2010 according to news reports, at least $1 billion.

New York state has been cleaning up along the creek shore for years but they delegated the dirty mud at the bottom to the EPA. “It’s not a question of a moral responsibility,” Mugdan said.

Gracer, the industry representative, sat at the other end of the table, bearing some resemblance to Woody Allen. “I don’t know if there’s a uniform industry perspective,” Gracer said, and added that companies like National Grid, Exxon and others are concerned with “the sheer magnitude of liabilities.”

Referring to a figure of four to five billion dollars, he said, “Believe it or not, that’s a lot of money.” Gracer added that his clients ask whether the government could pay for it instead. “These numbers are so big that taking out every single molecule isn’t possible,” Gracer said.

A slide was up on screen titled “Surface and Subsurface Sediment Sample Location Map, February-April 2009,” showing a map of Newtown Creek superimposed with more than 100 samples, some of which from the same spots.

“Perspective is everything,” Gallay declared. “It depends on the degree to which there is actual risk, whether you have drinking water involved, whether you have pathways for human exposure, whether you have active public—because if you have an active public and you do not involve them you are always guaranteeing yourself some problems.” He works for Riverkeeper, a nonprofit environmental group, founded 45 years ago. “Our first pillar is public involvement,” he said.

“If you go out to a community and say, Hey, you’re living next to a highly contaminated toxic waste site, people do what they would naturally do, they will have this extremely visceral reaction,” Mugdan, the EPA official, said at St. John’s. “And they say, ‘Just take it away, get rid of it.’ But they don’t understand all the ramifications.”

At Mugdan’s office on 290 Broadway, the 19th floor with a clear view of the New York Life insurance building and the Hudson River: “Nobody has cleaned up the creek itself yet,” he said. His press aide sat on a couch perpendicular to him, taking notes.

“There are basically four different categories of environmental problems that are involved in Newtown Creek,” he said. “One of them is the massive oil spill for which ExxonMobil is responsible, which is millions and millions of gallons of oil that were spilled over many, many years from a facility nearby there, and it’s all sitting underground in a big reservoir.

“The second is…” Mugdan paused. Like at St. John’s University, he was dressed all in pinstripes. His aide kept scribbling in the periphery. “There are a variety of what we call facilities—properties alongside the creek that when the land itself is maybe contaminated from the operations that were on the land.”

“Three is we’ve got contaminated mud at the bottom of the creek,” Mugdan said. “And four is that the water itself is also contaminated.” He went on to add that the Superfund program he directs for this area only deals with one of the above: “the toxic mud,” which he had referred to in his St. John’s lecture as having the consistency and appearance of what he said dredgers called black mayonaisse. Mugdan did not know where the oil, pumped out by the state, goes.

When asked what he meant by properties, Mugdan got up to get a map. “On the banks of the creek are many parcels,” he said, laying an 8.5 by 11 inch piece of paper on a small square table, a map of the creek with the various pieces of the ecological situation shown in color. “These are the companies that either now or in the past operated there,” he said. “Here’s the City’s sewage treatment plant,” pointing to the intersection of Humboldt Street and Greenpoint Ave. “The City of New York had also somewhere an incinerator.”

A boat crew went up the creek toward that incinerator sometime in the 1890s, according to urban historian Andrew Hurley, writing for the Journal of Urban History in 1994. He wrote that “members of the Fifteenth Ward Smelling Committee” left Hunter’s Point and quickly found all of the “oil refining, chemical production, glue making, and fertilizer manufacturing” that “transformed the area around Newtown Creek into an ecological wasteland.”

The eastern half of the creek is home to a cluster of industrial sites: Exxon, British Petroleum, Chevron, copper mining company Phelps Dodge and natural gas conglomerate National Grid. A large pipe called a combined sewer overflow (CSO) dots the bank at one point, “carrying sewage from all these buildings and houses”—Mugdan races his finger across the map of Greenpoint and vicinity that he put on the table—“from the toilets, from the sinks, kitchens, etc., they go to a sewage treatment plant. But when it rains,” he added, “the rainwater that falls onto the street goes into the gutter in the street and into the drain and that drain leads into the same pipe.” But the pipes are only of a certain bandwidth; all of the excess sewage and rainwater goes into the creek.

“There’s very few people who live right on the creek,” Mugdan said, but noted that a few live in houseboats on top of the creek.

Phillip Musegaas shuffled his feet distractedly at the long table of a beige- colored office on 20 Secor Road alongside the Ossining rail station at the headquarters of Riverkeeper. Several wall maps were plastered on the walls, one of them of the city with two blue pins stuck onto different points along Newtown: one, number eight, over the Greenpoint Manufacturing & Design Center and the other, number four, over where the Exxon refinery used to be.

“Riverkeeper is a membership-supported environmental organization. We’ve been around since 1966,” Musegaas (mew-SEE-gus) said, dressed with the sleeves of his denim gray shirt rolled up. Musegaas had close-cropped hair and bags under his eyes. He has been very busy lately. “We started out as the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association. We were founded by a group of commercial fishermen,” he said. They were “concerned about declining fish populations in the river and their declining livelihood.”

The refinery in question used to be owned by Rockefeller, but then, as Musegaas and Mugdan and anyone else will tell you, Standard Oil became Mobil and then, later, Exxon acquired Mobil.

“The site on Newtown Creek that’s—it’s an old refinery site. You can’t tell now, because there’s basically nothing on the site, but it was a refinery until 1966,” Musegaas said, the same year Riverkeeper began as a fishermen’s group, though it did not get the name until 1982 when RFK, Jr. and John Cronin, now with Pace University, redubbed it as Riverkeeper.

“Exxon, by taking over ownership, assumed the liability of the properties that they took over,” Musegaas explained. Riverkeeper first explored Newtown in 2002. “All the refineries are gone. There are some gas storage facilities, there’s a Getty Oil facility on the Queens side.”

Referring to the trash barge on the other side of the creek, known in EPA bureaucratese as the DSNY-MTS, or Department of Sanitation-Marine Transfer Station, “When you’re on the water it looks like a huge double set of garage doors that you can fit a ship into. And basically what they would do is they would bring garbage barges in there, bring the barges underneath—into the building, and then garbage trucks would drive up—there used to be an upper floor there—they would drive up there, back their trucks up and dump all their garbage into the barges and then it would go, I don’t know, float off to Jersey for nine years or something.

“Now they truck most of the waste by rail,” he continued, “over on the Queens side.”

One of the most insidious compounds embedded in the creek bed is a chemical known as polychlorinatedbiphenyl (PCB), which is used as “an insulating, lubricating oil that companies like [General Electric] would use.

“It’s used in very old lights,” Musegaas went on. “It’s used mainly in electrical transformers and capacitors. So, large industrial-sized electrical equipment. It increases conductivity or something like that.” Like Mugdan, he pointed to the big transformers at substations. “It doesn’t break down in the environment” and is “extremely toxic stuff.”

The fishermen who founded the organization “learned, I think in the 1970s, that PCBs were contaminating the fish. PCBs were not banned until 1977. They’re not used anymore, but they’re out in the environment.”

Musegaas lives 13 miles inland from the small river town of Ossining (Sing Sing), in Katonah, but was born in Missouri. He says he’s been all over the country. “When I lived in Seattle I started getting more involved in marine conservation,” Musegaas said. “I did my Bachelor’s thesis on whaling.”

The Clean Water Act of 1972 “is our bible, right?” he asked rhetorically. “It’s our framework.” The “key part” of that act, he added, “is it’s supposed to be a technology-based law,” meaning that federal regulations must follow suit with technical advances. Yet its wording is contrived to mean that businesses must use the “best available” technology to “minimize their impact,” which many construe as vague at best and burdensome at worst.

The “biggest obstacle” he can name are those combined sewer overflows. “So the ExxonMobil pollution and the other industrial pollution—over time, the EPA Superfund process is gonna clean a lot of that up—it’s not gonna eliminate all of it, but…”

Kathleen Schmid sits at the corner table in Ashbox, the café across from the GMDC (Greenpt Manufact & Design Ctr), putting together an educational grant proposal (a figure flashed in front of this reporter, appearing to be the total budget for the assocation: $12,000). Originally from Tennessee but now living in Prospect Heights, Schmid directs the Newtown Creek Alliance. “Our mission is the remediation of Newtown Creek,” Schmid said. “Generally, people aren’t interested in the creek.”

Creek Speak, a page on the Newtown Creek Alliance (NCA) website, is “an effort to bring in the stories of long-term residents” but designed to avoid being a community center.

The NCA was founded along with Riverkeeper in 2002, the first year Riverkeeper discovered Newtown. “We were on Riverkeeper’s boat,” said Schmid. “It’s a blue-collar neighborhood,” she pointed out, explaining how working people have little time to devote to activism. Dressed in a pantsuit with pale green eyes and brown hair rolled into a ponytail, she started out with the City Council Committee on Waterfronts before attending law school.

The NCA counts “about 30 very active members” and 100 or so others who are not as participatory but count themselves as supporters. Their biggest partner is the GMDC which helps business act more ecologically responsibly, for example by installing solar panels on their roofs and achieve better energy efficiency. There are now just 147 properties on both banks of the creek; Schmid estimated that two-thirds were on the Brooklyn side.

Elizabeth Siuran has lived in Greenpoint for 20 years and cooks and serves food at Happy End, a diner on Manhattan Ave that serves up kielbasa, borscht and pierogies. Siuran said her son, Martin, speaks better English. He comes in later, clad in an argyle sweater and a cap, who says he is only in the neighborhood for business. As for the creek, only a shrug.

It was a chilly mid-April afternoon, with a thick gray haze hung overhead. Random people you meet, for instance at the hardware shop on MacGuiness, will have no idea what the Newtown Creek Alliance is.

John Kadilis, with a firm called Polservice Inc., an employment agency, said he sees the Alliance’s fliers from time to time and that two years ago they protested Consolidated Edison.

Schmid’s group works to educate the public. Newtown’s surrounding communities are industrial and low-income neighborhoods. “It’s a very knotty problem. It’s all mixed together,” she said. Schmid added that just half of NCA members live in Greenpoint. “We’re viewed very positively,” she said.

When a man walking down a sidewalk to his studio at Dupont Street and MacGuiness was asked by this reporter what he knows about the creek, he shrugged the question off. “It’s gross,” he offered, and then laughed.

On Clay Street, a man who would only identify himself as Mark worked on a car engine, its wheels propped up and a wrench laying out in the dim sunlight. He sounded angry as he recounted how every few months he hears a new thing about the creek. Mark has been a tenant there for the past 20 years.

“The solution is not very serious,” he said, resenting how the ones who are supposedly remediating the problem want to go after, as he sees it, the property owners because the lots used to be where pollution sources like oil refineries and other industrial effluents used to be. Mark wore a cap and woolen gloves. “The problem is health, right?” he asked rhetorically. He felt indignant at the idea that people like him should foot the bill for the damages caused by people long gone.

Caroline, a tenant for three years, walked her dog, a chain-link leash around its collar. All she knows is that the area was declared a Superfund site. “It’s certainly not good for morale,” she said. “But it has to be done.”


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