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Remediation Of Newtown Creek Begins In Queens & Brooklyn

After 150 Years Of Environmental Destruction, Remediation Of Newtown Creek Begins

newtown creek clean up queens brooklynJanuary 21, 2012 / Queens & Brooklyn / Bronx Environment & Parks / Queens Buzz NYC.

Every good process begins with information gathering, so that the decision makers have all of the relevant information they need to make sound decisions. After the information gathering / research is done, and the decisions are made, then the actual execution of the [clean up] process begins.

And so it was that on October 27, 2011, I visited the Newtown Creek Superfund Public Meeting - Queens at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City. There were more than ten representatives, largely from various departments within the EPA, on hand to answer questions and provide information to the public about how the federal government process to clean up Newtown Creek.

Click here to learn more about the history and EPA clean up of Newtown Creek in Brooklyn Queens. The creek helps shape some of the border between Queens and Brooklyn.


Remediation Of Newtown Creek Begins In Queens & Brooklyn

newtown creek oil refineries 2010History Of Environmental Destruction Of Newtown Creek

January 21, 2012 / Queens & Brooklyn / Bronx Environment & Parks / Queens Buzz NYC. Continued.

Newtown Creek has been a very important NYC waterway since the dawn of America's industrialization. In the 1800's as American industrialization began to accelerate, the banks of Newtown Creek became home to sawmills, coal yards and oil and chemical companies. From the 1860's to the 1890's about fifty oil refining operations sprang up along the Newtown Creek shores and were eventually consolidated into Standard Oil [now ExxonMobil Corporation].

Newtown Creek Was Once Home To Fifty Oil Refineries

These oil refineries, as well as companies in other industries, generally benefited from having industrial space in close proximity to Manhattan with direct waterway shipping access. The industrialization and use of the Newtown Creek waterway peaked during World War II when it became one of the busiest waterways in the world.

In 1919, near the end of World War I, the Newtown Creek refineries had a combined storage capacity in excess of one hundred million gallons of oil. The Standard Oil Plant - Brooklyn Refineries, as they were called at the time, were said to be refining up to one million gallons of oil per day. A fire broke out on September 13th, and about 20 acres of oil tanks exploded. What wasn't consumed in flames spilled into Newtown Creek, the East River or was absorbed by the earth.

Environmental Damage Destroys Brooklyn Drinking Water Source

newtown creek pollution impact on brooklyn drinking waterBrooklyn sourced its drinking water from wells underneath the borough until 1949 when the water quality was so polluted that the borough joined Manhattan in sourcing its water from the Catskills [use our search engine to see current story about NYC water quality in 2012 - Hydrofracking]. Please note that all photos and graphics shown in this story are also contained in both the slide show and the photo album. Scroll down to the end of this report and click into the Newtown Creek photo album to view the largest copies of the graphics.

Newtown Creek Explosion in Brooklyn in 1950

On October 7, 1950 about twenty manhole covers in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn were blown as high as the rooftops in an explosion attributed to the combustion of oil lying beneath the surface. Industrial activity in this area began to wane.

Newtown Creek Believed To Be Site Of One Of Largest Oil Spills Ever

coast guard discovers oil spill newtown creek 1978In September 1978 a Coast Guard vessel discovered that oil was rising to the surface of Newtown Creek, creating a toxic mess. At the time, a Coast Guard study indicated that the size of the spill was 17 million gallons. A subsequent study placed the high range value of the spill at up to thirty million gallons. Hence the size of this oil spill is equivalent in size to the Exxon Valdez oil spill of the 1990's, during which the Exxon Valdez is said to have spilled between eleven and thirty one million gallons of oil.

Based on oil refining compounds and techniques, much of the spill is believed to have originated around the middle of the 20th century when the refining operations along Newtown Creek were at their peak. Following the Coast Guard discovery in 1978, ExxonMobil began a clean up operation in 1979 which continued at various levels of output during the next three decades, during which it is said they may have recovered about eight million gallons of oil.

EPA Obtains Approval For Newtown Creek Remediation 2009 - 2010

epa remediation newtown creekIn 2007 the EPA filed a study recommending that Newtown Creek was eligible to be listed as a Superfund site. Superfund sites are areas designated to be harmful to public health. As such they qualify for government resources to find and prosecute the responsible parties as well as to clean up the site. In September 2009, Newtown Creek was officially recommended to the National Priorities List for Superfund Clean Up; and in September of 2010 the Newtown Creek was approved to be put on the National Priority List and officially became a Superfund site.

EPA Superfund Session About Newtown Creek

EPA Departments At LaGuardia Community College in October 2011

wanda ayala photo epa newtown creek clean upThere were a number of groups participating in the EPA process to assess, determine and execute the clean up of Newtown Creek. They included various branches of the Environmental Protection Agency which address: 1) scientific / engineering issues, 2) New York State Department of Health, 3) community involvement coordination [oversees community input], 4) remedial efforts [clean up process], 5) stakeholder issues [affected parties], and 6) legal issues

The general issues that have to be researched and assessed are implicit in the list of groups in attendance at this event. The EPA scientific division will oversee the assessment and provide input into the decision-making process. And the NYS Department of Health is there to identify and address related health issues. The community involvement and coordination is designed to provide a mechanism for collecting and managing neighborhood concerns, issues and communications. The remedial efforts center around executing the clean up. The Stakeholder issues have to do with managing how the clean up will affect the parties currently occupying the clean up area and neighboring vicinities. The legal issues are primarily centered around identifying the PRP's [Potentially Responsible Parties].

EPA Begins Remediation of Newtown Creek

It's estimated that the Newtown Creek environmental assessment process may take up to seven years, and it's possible the clean up process may take an additional ten years beyond that.

Remedial Investigation / Feasibility Study Newtown Creek

remediation investigation remedial assessment newtown creekThe first phase of the clean up process is the Remedial Investigation / Feasibility Study [RIFS]. According to EPA documents, "The RI/FS process will characterize environmental conditions at Newtown Creek and connecting tributaries, determine the nature of the waste, assess risk to human health and the environment, and evaluate potential cleanup alternatives."

This study commenced in the fall of 2011, and indirectly the visit by the EPA to LaGuardia Community College in Queens on October 27, 2011 was a part of that process. They're currently in the process of engaging the community in the assessment, which will influence the decisions made about the approach to take in the clean up, and which will ultimately determine the final outcome.

Physical Characteristics of Newtown Creek

aerial view aerial map of newtown creek queens brooklyn nycNewtown Creek is largely a fairly stagnant body of water running only 3.8 miles inland from the East River. It has several tributaries and rises and falls with the tide. One of the tributaries is the Dutch Kills Canal. The majority of Newtown Creek is located within one of three industrial business zones within the city and one of six Significant Maritime and Industrial areas. As such Newtown Creek is maintained for shipping purposes and under the jurisdiction of the Coast Guard.

Clean Up Efforts Around Newtown Creek - Brooklyn & Queens

Following the 1978 discovery of re-emergence of toxic waste by the Coast Guard and a subsequent study by them, the EPA began monitoring Newton Creek in 1980. Since then the EPA has taken numerous samples which indicate there are a number of toxic substances contained in the creek and in the water tables / clay and sediment surrounding and below the creek and surrounding area [aka Brooklyn and Queens]. The scientists from the EPA are involved in overseeing these assessments.

Toxic Composition Of Newtown Creek - EPA Superfund Site

toxic superfund site newtown creekThe studies corroborate that there are many toxic substances that have come from a variety of sources and over a long time. An EPA reported stated that, "Hazardous substances, including pesticides, metals, PCBs, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), have been detected at the creek." While the creek is generally used for industrial transport, it has also been used by kayakers and there is also fishing access. This explains why there were representatives from the NYS Department of Health.

Impact Of Environmental Damage On Seafood Caught In NYC

do not eat fish caught in newtown creek east river long island soundOne of the pamphlets I picked up at this session essentially warned people NOT to eat any fish found in bodies of water like Newtown Creek or the East River [see photo to right and enlargement in Newtown Creek photo album - link at end of this report below]. And to limit the amount of fish eaten to between one and four meals PER MONTH, depending on age and gender, and to space the meals within the month, and not to eat the soft, fatty parts of the fish if they are sourced in NYC metropolitan waters including the Long Island Sound, nearby Hudson River, East River and even nearby fishing areas along the Atlantic Ocean.

Community Advisory Group - Interested Participants Contact EPA

community advisory group epa newtown creek clean upAs previously mentioned, we are currently at the beginning of the Remedial Investigation / Feasibility Study [RIFS] which started in the fall of 2011. One of the aspects of this is to seek community involvement and begin communicating with existing stakeholders. One of the mechanisms for community involvement is the formation of a Community Advisory Group.

I was told that these groups work best when comprised of 25 - 30 people. I was informed that the Community Advisory Group involved in the clean up of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn includes about 60 people. It's important to remember that this effort could go on for seven years for the assessment and decision-making, and then another ten for the implementation of the clean up.

The EPA recognizes it would be nice to have people participate throughout the life of the project, but also that it's unlikely so people will be rotated through the advisory group. One of the most important aspects of the Community Advisory Group is to find people who represent various constituencies, be they ethnic, gender, roles based [eg. Parents] or advocacy based [eg. Fishermen] or commercially based [eg. Commercial shipper]. They're currently taking applications, which can be submitted to Wanda Ayala at the EPA [ayala.wanda @ epa . gov or call 212.637.3676].

Stakeholders aren't just the property owners within the affected area, but the community at large. As part of the initial stages, they will begin assessing the environmental damage to Newtown Creek. This will include aerial photos, various taking of samples and measurements, and analysis of various ways to solve the problem.

Remedial Design / Remedial Action - Newtown Creek Clean Up

newtown creek brooklynOne of the deliverables of the RIFI effort will be RDRA which is Remedial Design and Remedial Action. This is served up to the public for comment as it will be the plan by which the Superfund site will be cleaned up.

As mentioned above, ExxonMobil has conducted clean ups in this area previously by absorbing oil and chemicals from the creek, sediment and water tables. It has been estimated that they have cleaned up somewhere between 20% - 50% of the spill. But by most accounts, the reliability of these estimates is uncertain, at best.

EPA Superfund Clean Up - Historical Components Of Remediation

Toxic dumps are generally cleaned up via a number of different processes: 1) direct efforts to clean it up, 2) natural processes that will clean it up over time, and 3) some of the mess just never gets cleaned up, but becomes buried and over time its impact is diminished.

Potentially Responsible Parties Enter Into Administrative Order On Consent

potentially responsible parties newtown creek pollutionTo date, the city of New York and five PRP's [Potentially Responsible Parties] have been identified. They include Phelps Dodge, Texaco, British Petroleum [aka BP], National Grid [bought Brooklyn Union Gas and KeySpan], and ExxonMobil. The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] entered into an Administrative Settlement Agreement and Administrative Order on Consent [AOC] with these parties. The AOC was signed on July 7, 2011, which paved the way for the first phase of the clean up process.

Due to the high degree of variability found in the contaminants in Newtown Creek it is believed that there may be other PRP's identified as time goes on. Given the pollution took place over a period of 150 years, many of the responsible parties may no longer exist. The slide shown above provides a sketch of guidelines surrounding potentially responsible parties, including liability associated with the transfer of property in the Newtown Creek vicinity.

Planned Activities For 2012 - Newtown Creek Queens & Brooklyn

epa schedule of activities in 2012 newtown creek clean upThe EPA is currently in the process of establishing a Community Advisory Group. If you're interested in getting involved, call or email Wanda Ayala at the EPA [ayala.wanda @ epa . gov] or call 212.637.3676.

The following is a schedule of activities as outlined at the October 27, 2011 event. You may also find these in the photo album along with maps and photos of both Newtown Creek itself and the session at LaGuardia Community College. The Newtown Creek photo album can be seen by clicking the link at the end of this report.

Newtown Creek - EPA Activities - Winter 2012

Interpret Fall 2011 survey data, prepare for Spring fieldwork, conduct upland and historic site search, and initiate modeling work.

newtown creek oil refineriesNewtown Creek - EPA Activities - Spring 2012

Phase 1 sampling of sediment, water and air; prepare data applicability report, and prepare phase 1A work plan which includes follow on source identification work and reference site sampling.

Newtown Creek - EPA Activities - Summer 2012

Interpret Phase 1 data, continue phase 1 sampling, implement phase 1A field work including further investigation of high priorities such as suspected ongoing sources of pollution, collect reference site characterization data.

Newtown Creek - EPA Activities - Fall 2012

environmental science laguardia community college queensPrepare sources sampling approach memo, with focus on investigating pipe discharges; complete screening of Level Ecological Risk Assessment and compare phase 1 data to screening values; continue interpreting phase 1 data, conduct phase 1 water sampling and start planning for phase 2 effort and baseline Ecological Risk Assessment Workshop.

Lastly, it's worth noting that LaGuardia Community College has started offering courses in environmental science. As the college is near Newtown Creek, they expect to find ways to participate or collaborate with the EPA on the Newtown Creek clean up, while educating their students about it.

Slide Show - Photos of Newtown Creek In Queens & Brooklyn

Click this link to go into the album containing photos of Newtown Creek, including maps, on sight photos and the EPA Superfund clean up event at LaGuardia Community College.


Sources: October 27, 2011 Newtown Creek Superfund Meeting in Queens / EPA Departments & Personnel in attendance / Newtown Creek Alliance / Riverkeeper / NY Magazine / NYT / HabitatMap.org / NYCDEP [NYC Department of Enviromental Protection].


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