The Newtown Creek is one of the most polluted bodies of water in the nation, fouled by more than a century of sewage overflows, oil spills and industrial waste. The coastline of this 3.8-mile waterway, located along the border of Brooklyn and Queens, is lined with wastewater facilities, factories, warehouses and oil storage tanks. Coming up with a plan to clean this toxic estuary may now take five years longer than expected, according to a new timeline released by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA added the creek to the Superfund National Priorities List in 2010, initiating an investigation into its sources of pollution. This autumn, the EPA shared an updated timeline on its work toward creating a comprehensive plan to clean the entire creek. That cleanup plan, known as a Record of Decision, was initially expected to be completed in 2023 — but now it isn't due to be complete until 2028.
The EPA’s new timeline also estimates that the larger cleanup of the entire creek would not begin until 2032 at the earliest — 22 years after it was declared a Superfund site for its unsafe levels of copper, lead, dioxins, pesticides, carcinogenic chemicals, petroleum byproducts and other contaminants.
The Newtown Creek Superfund Site Community Advisory Group, a group of volunteers from the neighborhood who meet monthly with the EPA, was presented with the new timeline by the agency at a September meeting. They immediately expressed anger, sadness, depression and shock about the cleanup's delay.
“We are talking about so many years to wait for something to actually get done,” said Laura Hofmann, a member of the Community Advisory Group, during the meeting. “I mean, you have to understand for the community what an insult that is.”
The Community Advisory Group is the main forum for members of the public to engage in the Superfund process, and it had not been provided with an updated timeline for several years. The EPA has also not published a community update about the cleanup since July 2021.
“It was definitely a major shock for members of the Community Advisory Group to see this new timeline,” said Willis Elkins, the co-chair of the Community Advisory Group and executive director of the Newtown Creek Alliance. “It’s just very disheartening when we think about how long we have been working on this so far … It is frustrating to think about how much longer we are going to have to wait, before there are shovels in the ground.”
The delays are partially due to a new study the EPA is conducting to determine if contaminated groundwater underneath properties along the creek is also polluting the creek itself. The EPA had already conducted three extensive rounds of fieldwork over the last decade to identify these sources of pollution before deciding the groundwater study was also necessary. Monitoring wells installed around the creek are now investigating the severity of this problem, and the study is not expected to be complete until 2024.
Everyone wants the work done faster. We do, too.
“Everyone wants the work done faster. We do, too. But we don’t want to do that at the expense of conducting a not-good cleanup or a less-good cleanup,” said Stephanie Vaughn, who oversees the Newtown Creek Superfund site as the chief of the EPA’s Megaprojects Section of the Superfund division. “The record of decision for the entire site will be done later than previously anticipated, however, the creek will still get cleaned up, and the overall time frame for when it gets cleaned up may or may not be any longer than originally anticipated.”
For community members living near the creek, who are affected daily by all of the industrial toxins released around the creek, any delay is unacceptable. Studies are still underway to understand the full scope and consequences of its pollution. Health department surveys in 1992 reported higher rates of stomach cancer and some forms of leukemia in the Greenpoint and Williamsburg areas. More recent data shows stomach cancer rates are higher in those areas relative to the citywide incidence, while the leukemia rate is lower.
“It’s just disgusting that things have been going on for so long with the creek,” said Hofmann, a lifelong resident of Greenpoint, which borders the creek. “They are so worried about doing a perfect cleanup that we are going to sit amongst all the contamination for additional time.”
Besides the Newtown Creek Superfund site, the creek’s watershed is also home to the Meeker Avenue Plume Superfund site and the Greenpoint oil spill, one of the largest oil spills in the nation’s history. Both of these sites have contaminated the ground underneath Greenpoint and Williamsburg, leaching into the groundwater and aquifer. The types of chemicals and gases found in the Meeker plume have been linked to various cancers by the National Cancer Institute, including lymphoma and leukemia.
“My family has been slammed with environmentally linked diseases and birth defects and all kinds of crap. I could go down a list that would make the hairs on your neck stand up,” said Hofmann, who has been working to clean up Newtown Creek and her neighborhood since the 1980s. In recent decades, she and her parents, children, grandchildren, aunts, uncles and neighbors have been diagnosed with a harrowing variety of cancers, autoimmune diseases and birth defects, she said.
The EPA is quick to point out that the water and sediment contained in the creek itself, which is the focus of the Newtown Creek Superfund cleanup, does not pose a direct risk to those living inland. According to Vaughn, the only way that someone could become ill from the creek’s water would be to come into direct contact with it, especially through eating its fish, crabs or shellfish.
“We absolutely understand that people are concerned there is a Superfund site and they live nearby it, but unless they are exposed to it, unless they directly contact that creek on an ongoing and regular basis, and actually ingest what is in that creek, the Superfund site itself is not increasing their risk,” said Vaughn.
In an attempt to speed up the Superfund process, the EPA is now proposing to split the cleanup into smaller units, as opposed to conducting the entire remediation all at once. Their plan is to focus on the creek’s East Branch, where they would conduct an expedited project to help determine the best approach for their larger cleanup.
“These sites are complex, and it often makes sense to break them into smaller pieces and address different pieces one at a time,” said Vaughn. “We will still be in the creek, cleaning it up, on about the same timeline as we have been presenting over the last several years.”
Breaking up the plan into smaller sections has raised concerns in the community.
“Obviously it’s important to test the remedies, but if our focus for the next four years is just on this one very small section of the creek, and we are not actually helping to advance the full cleanup in the most efficient fashion possible, then I feel like it might be a distraction in some ways,” said Elkins. “We don’t want to focus solely on the expedited action and lose sight of the whole cleanup.”
Meanwhile, remediation of Brooklyn’s other toxic waterway, the Gowanus Canal, has made much more progress. The canal, which was also designated a Superfund site in 2010, is located less than 4 miles away from the Newtown Creek. Dredging on the Gowanus began in 2020, and hundreds of bargeloads of its noxious sediment – known as “black mayonnaise” – have already been removed from the bottom of the waterway, as the EPA prepares to cap sections of the canal with a protective layer.
“It’s hard not to get into a comparison,” said Elkins. “Newtown Creek is much bigger, and we appreciate that the scale of the problem is very large. But at the end of the day, you can’t help but feel like we are not getting the resources or the strong will of the government.”
The EPA is reluctant to compare its progress at the two Superfund sites, but Vaughn did note that the Newtown Creek site will involve a much more complicated cleanup — given the larger scale and that it has many more types of pollution and sources of contamination.
“It is certainly not the longest site that’s ever taken to get cleaned up,” said Vaughn. “Another site that we often compare it to would be the Passaic River, which I know is New Jersey and not Brooklyn. But there, that site was listed in 1984, and they are still not cleaning it up.”
It has been 38 years since the lower Passaic River in Newark, New Jersey, was added to the Superfund National Priorities List, and the EPA’s plan to dredge and cap 17 miles of the river has yet to break ground. Like that site, the new timeline for the Newtown Creek could mean it will be decades before the creek is officially clean.
“I certainly won’t be here, not if it’s 50 years from now. It’s just unthinkable,” said Hofmann. “Everything’s gone too slowly… Every time that we think we are 10 steps forward, we go 20 back.”