Why Brooklyn's Newtown Creek superfund site is still there - and still dirty


Newtown Creek, located in the quickly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint, is one of the most toxic waterways in the United States. Several sources of hazardous dumping exist on both the Queens and Brooklyn sides of this industrial creek, but the lingering contaminant has been oil.

Over 140 years, roughly 19 million gallons of oil and other harmful chemicals have seeped into the soil and water. These originate mainly from a refinery that started under the ownership of Standard Oil, and now belongs to ExxonMobil.

This slow leak of toxicity, commonly known as the Greenpoint Oil Spill, created a plume of oil that bled into 52 acres of land, recognized as the second largest oil spill (New York) after the DeepWater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil product includes polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and benzene, both of which, in large enough quantities, can cause cancer.

Since ExxonMobil is the result of Standard Oil being broken up by anti-trust regulation in 1911, the oil giant is legally liable for the leaky refinery. ExxonMobil began pumping a relatively small amount of oil from groundwater in 1979, and increased siphoning efforts after political pressure in 1995. Roughly 13 million gallons of oil-contaminated product has already been pumped, according to an email sent to WikiTribune from New York State’s Department of Conservation.

The Environmental Protection Agency, the federal regulator of pollution, has acknowledged that slowly pumping oil from the ground won’t clean Newtown Creek, which has 25 feet of toxic “black mayonnaise” sediment at the bottom of the water (New York). 

In 2009, the EPA officially designated Newtown Creek asuperfund site,” contaminated areas that pose a health risk, needed to be cleaned under the enforcement of the government. Yet eight years later, Newtown Creek is nowhere close to being clean. A distinct metallic sheen of oil floats on the surface of the water table before becoming jet-black gunk once it hits the rocks.

ExxonMobil did not respond to requests for information or comment about this story.

Newtown Creek in the Queens Borough of New York in 2010. Newtown Creek is a waterway approximately 3.5 miles long between the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Since 2010, the EPA has been stuck in the preliminary phase of drafting a proposal for cleanup. This delay is the case for most of the 1,300 superfund sites in the country. In the past five years, only 43 superfund sites have been deleted from the list.

Things are supposed to improve under the President Donald J. Trump administration, which has implemented a “streamlined” process for cleaning superfund sites. The decision was part of a broader shift away from EPA enforcement of policies related to climate change – which the president has referred to as a hoax.

However, the agency’s reformed mission statement has not resulted in a change in action compared with the Obama administration (New Republic). Seven superfund sites were cleaned, either fully or partially, in 2017, an improvement from the two cleaned in 2016. But this was on par with the seven treated  in 2016, and below the 15 in 2015 and 12 sites in 2014 (The Hill).

Superfund sites never get cleaned

The main obstacle to rectifying superfund sites boils down to cost, and finding someone to pay the massive cleanup bill. The majority of superfund sites were contaminated before 1990, when the United States had fewer regulations enforcing environmental protections. When assessing the damage decades later, finding a “responsible party” for the waste can be complicated. In some cases the polluting company no longer exists.

The EPA previously treated these “orphan sites” using an excise tax, levied on oil and gas industry companies, which was eventually discontinued in 1996. Kara Cook, with the Public Interest Research Group, says having a fund for orphan sites was instrumental in protecting residents from actions that were sometimes taken well before 1930.

“You have to remember that there was much less environmental protections in the 1970s and 1980s … three or four companies could have been dumping on a spot, yet no one knew who they were,” said Cook.

But Newtown Creek is not an orphan site with ambiguity over who’s accountable for the millions of gallons of spilled oil. ExxonMobil accepted accountability for the spill, along with other oil companies, including  British Petroleum and Texaco, which had smaller roles in the defective storage unit over its 140-year-long leak.

ExxonMobil isn’t the only polluter who’s accepted culpability. There are several polluters of the waterway, including sewage from the municipal government, which the EPA has also listed as responsible parties.

The long list of culprits makes calculating the damages arduous, though Michael Dulong, an environmental attorney for local watchdog RiverKeeper, expects each individual polluter to pay for the cleanup – he’s just unsure when that date will come.  

“Unfortunately, the Newtown Creek superfund process is creeping forward slowly. … Meanwhile, the Creek and its varied wildlife are suffering, and communities are burdened by toxic contamination and rampant sewage discharges,” Dulong told WikiTribune in an email.

The fact that cleanup has yet to commence, even though responsible parties have been identified, is a source of frustration for Riverkeeper, which helped campaign for Newtown Creek to be named a superfund site in 2010 (PBS).

Dulong expects the EPA to draft a proposal of the cost of cleanup, known as a “remedial investigation,” sometime in 2019. But he predicts another round of deliberations to follow, which could take years.

Public apathy 

The challenge for environmental activists in Brooklyn is getting nearby residents to learn and care about the extent of the damage to the area. Sounding the alarm on pollution is difficult when it’s existed for decades.

Three Greenpoint residents who spend time by the water told WikiTribune they were unaware of the 52-acre oil plume in the neighborhood, or the superfund designation of Newtown Creek.

“You see people walking their dogs there all the time, no problem. But you don’t touch the water. Never touch the water,” said one female resident who asked not to be named.

The health risk of living in Greenpoint is difficult to assess. The bulk of PCBs and benzene, which are carcinogens, have mainly settled at the bottom of the creek. While Greenpoint hasn’t taken drinking supplies from the groundwater since the 1940s, there is a concern over how evaporated chemicals from contaminated water and soil affect air quality.

Riverkeeper’s soil samples, taken in 2005 near residential areas, did not emit toxins into the air that exceeded the legal or EPA recommended limits (Earth Magazine). The effects of living near diluted samples have yet to be fully tested.

Claudia Persico, who studies environmental policy at American University, found that children born near Superfund sites tend to achieve lower academic test scores  than siblings who were not. Yet despite this clear association between toxic waste and developmental disabilities, Persico says the link between toxic waste and human activity is not strong enough to win over skeptics and polluting companies. 

“There simply hasn’t been enough research on the effects of specific toxins on humans,” says Persico. “So many people live near these sites, yet the funding for these studies isn’t there.”

Need for public pressure

Some environmental activists are tired of waiting. Walter Hang, founder of Toxics Targeting, and veteran activist on environmental issues, is a strong proponent of using incessant political pressure. As a former member of the Public Interest Research Group, which was instrumental in the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, he says environmental protection is too expensive to expect companies and politicians to voluntarily pay for.

“You tell a family that they live above (hundreds of thousands) gallons of benzene, and let’s see if they’re okay with that … local groups need to be hammering the governor every day to treat this disaster, that’s the only way this stuff works,” said Hang.

West Lake in Missouri became one of the latest superfund sites be scheduled for cleanup after groundswell of support from civic groups like Just St. Louis Moms.  Grassroots groups, like the Moms, lobbied their congressional members during an election year to clean up the abandoned military site, which was filled with nuclear waste created during the Manhattan Project.

Dulong is hopeful public activism will grow for Newtown Creek once property values rise. The creek’s shoreline is currently lined with heavy industry that emits exhaust and the smell of garbage. But the increasingly coveted Brooklyn location is beginning to develop into a residential area, and private homes bring concerned families. 

“The future of this waterway will affect real estate value, so the interest is there, people just need to know what’s going on. If the remedial investigation isn’t getting done by 2018, then we’ll see it gets done with a mobilized community,” says Dulong.

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