On October 5, 1950, a subsurface methane/ gasoline explosion blew 25 Greenpoint manhole covers three stories skyward and shattered glass in some 500 buildings. This was only the most dramatic event in the long decline of Newtown Creek, the former salt marsh at the Brooklyn-Queens border. Over the years, the 3.8-mile shipping channel and nearby groundwater have absorbed massive quantities of petroleum products, plus heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyls, volatile organic compounds, and other contaminants. A water treatment plant also pumps in a mix of stormwater and wastewater. The creek has no current, but its problems do not sit still: Tidal movements and combined sewer overflows affect the whole local estuary.
“We took core samples from the Riverkeeper boat back in December 2005,” said Phillip Musegaas from the environmental watchdog group of the same name. “It doesn’t even look like sediment. It basically looks like gelatinous black ooze, and it smells like petroleum.” Some call it “black mayonnaise.”
Without attracting the publicity of an Exxon Valdez or a Deepwater Horizon, Newtown Creek has quietly become New York’s grimmest example of what industries can do to water. Nearly two centuries of abuse, however, are winding down. On September 27, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) added Newtown Creek to Superfund’s National Priorities List, bringing federal expertise and enforcement muscle to the site’s multiple remediation efforts.
The Newtown Creek Alliance, Riverkeeper, and nonprofit developer Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Group (GMDC) have now hired Perkins+Will, along with engineers Gannett Fleming, for a ten-month planning project, funded under the state’s Brownfield Opportunity Area (BOA) program. Investigating 1,000 acres in Newtown Creek’s watershed, the team will identify three sites for interventions aimed at transforming the area to a greener waterfront and a healthier aquifer. The deliverable result, said Perkins+Will’s Philip Palmgren, will be a report envisioning Newtown Creek’s evolution two, five, 10, and 30 years from now. The project also includes public meetings, which began on October 28.
Five corporate landowners (ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron/Texaco, Phelps Dodge, and National Grid) have joined forces as the Newtown Creek Companies, focusing on land-side remediation, while Superfund efforts focus on the creek. These firms, said spokesman Sam Ostrow, have been working with the EPA for a while and with the City of New York as well, “so the project really is not affected by the listing.”
The area’s problems are not limited to petrochemicals. Used for whale-oil refining since the 1830s, Newtown Creek also hosted fertilizer and glue factories, copper-smelting plants, coalyards, tanneries, and other industries. Refineries began producing (and spilling) kerosene, gasoline, and naphtha in the 1860s through the late 1960s. Dredging and bulkheading in the late 19th century converted the creek to a wholly industrial channel where diverse firms discharged waste. Longstanding contamination from multiple sources makes it difficult to identify individual polluters, but the end product is distinctly hazardous. The new BOA study recognizes that the creek remains commercially active; unlike many studies, it does not consider the site to be abandoned or anticipate conversion to residential use after remediation (as at nearby Hunter’s Point South, where the city’s mixed-use masterplan awaits revived private investment). Palmgren notes that its M3 zoning is unlikely to change, even as environmental concerns, market vectors, and PlaNYC 2030 push firms toward greener technologies.
“The point is not to take away industrial uses,” Palmgren said, but to “introduce open green space into manufacturing zones.” Simply dredging the creek is impossible because the city relies on keeping the water-treatment plant running. The Superfund process, Palmgren said, represents “one of the original public-private partnerships... it isn’t simply that the feds take over the effort. The feds actually help find the responsible parties, [which] put a certain amount of money into the cleanup, and the private entities then are responsible for the cleanup as well.” It’s a contentious process, he admitted.
Paul Parkhill, director of planning and development at GMDC, said, “We’re looking for everybody’s ideas, but we’re putting it in a framework of industrial redevelopment. It’s a significant maritime industrial area, and we’re interested in working with the folks on the ground to figure out what 21st-century industry looks like.”
The challenge is to manage that transition, retaining or even expanding employment, while maintaining essential operations during remediation. “It’s not a matter of driving someone out,” said Palmgren. “It’s that the markets will adjust. How can we make Newtown Creek part of that adjustment rather than being left as a brownfield that has no industry, no jobs, no manufacturing, because the city is moving away from petroleum-based energy?”