Love That Dirty Water

A Meet-and-Greet with Everyone’s Favorite Polluted Waterway

Learning about a filthy little estuary

In the dubious stakes of the polluted waterways Olympics, Newtown Creek just may take the gold. Bounding North Brooklyn, running four miles back from it’s fetid mouth on the East River roughly opposite the UN complex, Newtown Creek is often cited as the most polluted waterway in the nation. And while there may be stiff competition from another filthy estuary a few miles to the South, home-hood pride requires us to root for our own little Superfund site.

So it was not without a certain civic pride that Go Green attended the first in a series of  informal gatherings hosted by the Newtown Creek Alliance(NCA) this past Wednesday, January 31, at the King County Brewers’ Collective in Bushwick.  Billed as the “Superfun/d Series,” this event, together with a sibling event to be held February 28th in Ridgewood, were conceived by the NCA to engage the “head of creek” communities of Bushwick and Ridgewood. Offering a low-key overview of the creek’s past, present, and future, the event offered an excellent starting point for those interested in learning more about this troubled waterway, and perhaps getting involved in its cleanup.

Now a mess, Newtown Creek was once a pristine tidal estuary, draining the fertile farmland then under cultivation to the North of what was then known as “Breuckelen,” meaning marsh-land.  There was even a famous apple, the Newtown Pippin, named for the creek and cultivated by Thomas Jefferson himself.

However, proximity to the great waterways of New York fated the creek to a life of industrial slavery, as commercial manufacture in the city metastasized throughout the 19th century.  Convenient, cheap,and largely unregulated (Queens was not even part of greater NY until 1898), Newtown Creek presented an ideal site for all manner of sordid industrial activity: animal rendering, fireworks production, acid distillation, paint manufacture, etc. Jello was invented here in 1845, the brainchild of Peter Cooper’s “nose-to-tail” rendering plant on the creek. Vaseline, too, first saw the light of day on Newtown, as one of the byproducts of a new industry, petroleum refining, that by the mid-1800s had made its home along the turgid waterway.

Standard Oil tugs on Newtown Creeek

But it was America’s pre-eminent industrialist — and richest individual — John D. Rockefeller who most fully condemned the creek to death, when he decided to make it the refining home for his burgeoning Standard Oil empire in the late 1800s. As business boomed, and a largely ignorant — and decidedly ineffectual — series of city councils looked the other way, the creek was slowly polluted do death with oil, tar, and petroleum distillates. The oil refineries would reach their polluting zenith in 1950, with the largest oil spill in US history occuring right under our feet (as recently alluded to in this very blog).

Not that Standard Oil didn’t have help: Phelps-Dodge’s Laurel Hill Copper Refinery, on what is now the Queens side of the creek, dumped enormous amounts of sludge and metals into the waterway over more than 50 years of operations. And the Empire Transit Mix concrete company was as recently as 2002 found to be dumping concrete byproducts into the creek via a secret pipe.

Moreover, lest we cast the blame too liberally on private commercial enterprise, it should be noted that the city of New York was and remains one of the main polluters of the creek, via a combined sewage system, centered at the Greenpoint Wastewater Treatment Plant (which GoGreen toured last July). As little as 1/10th of an inch of rain is enough to overwhelm this outmoded and underperforming system, triggering what are known as “combined sewage overflow,” or CSO events, in which raw sewage flows directly into the creek. With high-impact rain and snowmelt events on the rise (due in part to Global Warming), it is estimated that these events will increase in the future, raising the amount of raw sewage discharged over the current 1.2 Billion gallons released per year.

Raw sewage enters Newtwon Creek during a CSO

In 2010, after significant lobbying by diverse stakeholders, including congresswoman Carolyn Mahoney, the EPA declared Newtown Creek a federal superfund site, allowing for significant investment in the cleanup of the creek. However, the process for remediating the toxic environment of the creek with federal funds is, to say the least, protracted.  As NCA program manager Willis Elkins elaborated at the event, the EPA’s timeline for cleanup is a cool 30 years, putting us still squarely in the startup phase of the project. Much of the work that is currently being undertaken falls into the category of research, in part to determine exactly what is contained in the approximately 20 feet of “black mayonnaise,” that lines the creekbed. Add to this process the complications of overlapping spheres of authorit, such as the City’s Department of Transportation, which oversees the street drainage systems that trigger CSO events, and the DEP, which coordinates wastewater treatment, and it all comes into sharp focus as work undertaken for the benefit of the future, as opposed to for any immediate gratification.

Inundated with these sordid facts, it would be easy to sink into hopelessness. After all, what can one do to turn the tide of two centuries of neglect? Under these conditions, the NCA is to be applauded for placing the creek, and care thereof, squarely in the social and community space of North Brooklyn.

NCA’s Willis Elkins inspires the troops

“There are many things people can do everyday to get involved and to move the dial on the health of the Creek,” not’s NCA’s Lisa Bloodgood. “Want to help us stencil storm drains or plant native flowers? Or — tell The State and the Mayor’s office both that we should see nothing less than a commitment to 100% prevention of CSO’s (Their plan still allows millions of gallons of raw sewage and untreated stormwater runoff to flow into the Creek),” she suggests. “Our organization’s mission is to Restore/Reveal/Revitalize the waterway – there are thousands of way to do that. If you have an idea, let us know and we can help make it happen.”

Lisa also points out that the Superfund’s Community Advisory Group needs members: “These are people that meet regularly with the EPA — every couple of months — to keep up to date with how investigation and other actions are progressing and tries to guides the feds in their leadership of the Creek’s cleanup,” she explains. “No one ever gets a good deal unless you ask for it.”

So, while drinking beer and contemplating raw sewage may be a relatively new social entry in the ongoing hipster life of North Brooklyn, it seems to be one with some real legs under it. With an “all hands on deck” moment evident on the horizon, the NCA is doing its part to make sure the soldiers know what they’re fighting for.

The second in the NCA’s Superfun / d Series takes place this Wednesday, February 28 at the Windjammer Bar in Ridgewood. More information is here.