How Newton Creek Got That Way

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How did Greenpoint get so toxic? The root of the problem goes back several decades, although it was discovered much more recently.

By Kavya Balaraman

A brief history of contamination in Greenpoint

Late in October, an organization called the Neighbors Allied for Good Growth (NAG) released the beta version of an interactive map of Greenpoint. One of its layers displays polluted and contaminated properties in the neighborhood, and the results are both stunning and disconcerting. Apart from mapping small-scale chemical spills, the map highlights the sheer extent of damage that oil contamination has caused to the neighborhood.

A static image of the map, displaying polluted sites in the neighborhood.

A static image of the map, displaying polluted sites in the neighborhood.

How did Greenpoint get so toxic? The root of the problem goes back several decades, although it was discovered much more recently. One day in 2002, John Lipscomb, the captain of a patrol boat that covered the New York Harbor, decided to take a trip into a waterway that he hadn’t visited before. His job, at the time, was to cruise up and down a 185-mile stretch of the harbor looking for pollution concerns to report back to his employer, an organization called Riverkeeper.

Lipscomb had spent more than two years on that beat, but hadn’t yet ventured into Newtown Creek, a modest channel that snakes through Greenpoint and empties into the East River. “I saw the waterway on my chart and since I had some extra time, I decided to go in and have a look. I remember seeing around 20 wooden pallets, broken and floating around in the water. And then as I got close to where Apollo Street meets the water, I saw something,” he recollected.

As his boat nosed closer to the edge of the creek, he noticed a corrugated bulkhead and a dark pool bubbling around it. “It was one of those yellow plumes you sometimes see around projects where construction is happening in the water,” he said. “There was all this black, black crude oil that was all over the water. It was everywhere—I had never seen anything like that before.”

Although he didn’t know it at the time, Lipscomb had stumbled onto a centuries-old secret tucked deep under Greenpoint’s waterways. For the last 140-odd years, oil from multiple refineries located along the northwest corridor of the neighborhood had been seeping into its underground channels and water table. The contamination, while deadly, had gone unnoticed for a long time, bubbling up unexpectedly in certain areas—such as the plume Lipscomb found in Newtown Creek. By the time a team from Riverkeeper came down to investigate it, an estimated 17-30 million gallons of oil had already seeped into the ground, contaminating about 55 acres of property in Greenpoint.

There had been a few red signals before, according to a historical analysis conducted by the Newtown Creek Alliance, a community organization dedicated to cleaning up the water body. For instance, back in 1950, a concrete sewer exploded in Greenpoint, throwing manhole covers three-stories high. Although the story was covered, the cause behind it—namely, the oil coursing under the neighborhood—was never pinpointed. A few decades later a patrol guard noticed an oil plume in the creek, close to Meeker Avenue. This lead to some investigation and the beginning of cleanup activities, although progress was slow. To make matters worse, Mobil, one of the companies responsible for the spill, dumped an additional 50,000 gallons of oil into Newtown Creek in 1990. “What was shocking to me that this condition existed, within sight of Manhattan, and yet the few preventive measures in place were so inadequate,” said Lipscomb.

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Years of legal action, community mobilization, and frantic cleanup efforts later, the oil spill no longer commands the kind of city-wide attention it once did. But with its impressive map, NAG hopes to put the spotlight on the issues in the neighborhood once again. Ward Dennis, a board member of NAG, said that the map was the product of a year and a half of work. “We applied to the New York State Department of Environmental Conversation for a grant to put this together. We knew that with all the development and people coming into the neighborhood, there was an unawareness about these issues. The idea was to get all the information we could and put it out in a way that’s accessible and hopefully, understandable to the general public,” he said.

 The data from the map represents years worth of research and investigation into the extent of contamination within Greenpoint. By the time Riverkeeper began to work on the case, the original petroleum refineries that had leaked the oil had been consolidated and then split up once again. The current owners were identified as ExxonMobil, Chevron/Texaco, and BP. “At that time, the public of Greenpoint was furious. The community felt like it had lost its space – they were upset with the property owners, but they also felt that they weren’t being supported by the state agencies that were meant to oversee the pollution clean-ups,” Lipscomb recalled.

An estimation of the extent of the spill (source: Riverkeeper)

An estimation of the extent of the spill (source: Riverkeeper)

The team from Riverkeeper began to do whatever they could to bring more attention to the problem. “We organized many patrols—I stopped counting them after five years, because we did hundreds. This was before there were drones, so we used to physically take people out to the area to show them what was happening,” said Lipscomb. They were also spending time investigating the causes and effects of the spill and eventually, the team thought they had enough evidence to take ExxonMobil to court.

The case began in 2007, and ExxonMobil soon shut down their recovery wells, reducing the daily extraction of oil by more than 90 percent. It also began the process of cleaning up the groundwater. In 2010, the case was settled with Exxon agreeing to pay $25 million in penalties as well as fully clean up traces of the spill within Greenpoint.

The cleanup work is top priority, not least because the contamination can have serious health consequences for people in the area. Dennis explained, “A lot of properties in Greenpoint are being converted from industrial to residential sites, and this involves constructing buildings and digging basements and parking spaces. This can push out contamination, since there are so many underground aquifers and streams. Greenpoint was historically wetland, and there is a possibility that these are contaminated as well. Potentially contaminated sites need to be inspected and remediated if they’re going to be livable.”

According to the Newtown Creek Alliance’s post, the companies in charge of the cleanup don’t believe that more than 70 percent of the spillage can be recovered. However, the progress so far has been encouraging to local residents. Leah Rae, the staff writer and media specialist at Riverkeeper, explained that about 12.5 million gallons of crude oil have been recovered already, by pulling up groundwater through pumping wells, cleaning it and then returning it to the creek. “Another thing we’re beginning to talk about is returning wildlife to the creek. There are already fish coming back, and we’ve seen egrets and a few other species as well. Before the work is done, we want to see a portion of the original life that used to be there,” she said.

Their optimism is compounded by the fact that there are now several other agencies who are helping with outreach and cleanup efforts, such as the Newtown Creek Alliance and the North Brooklyn Boat Club. There have been more eyes keeping a check on potential polluters. “Last year, a guy who owned a waste oil collection company was caught dumping refuse in the creek. He’d go to gas stations and get the oil they take out of cars, take it back and refine it—the waste would go into the water. Paddlers from the Boat Club found it in a little tributary along the north side of the creek. It was the kind if place I wouldn’t have been able to get to in my boat. The community has really come forward,” said Lipscomb.

The push to clean up Greenpoint will definitely have to be a long-term effort, but Rae remains confident that the community will continue to support them. “These waterways can’t be written off. It’s easy to not put any eyes on them, because it’s not in our daily routine to pass by them. But we have an incredibly engaged community around here that really, really cares about making things better,” she said.

NAG’s map could play a huge role in this scenario: By making information about this contamination more accessible, it has the potential to galvanize a larger community around this issue and push for cleaning up Greenpoint once and for all.

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