NYC’s Newtown Creek Slated for Cleanup

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just added New York City’s Newtown Creek to its Superfund National Priorities List (NPL) of the country’s most hazardous waste sites. The designation allows EPA to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the creek to determine what remedial actions are required.

The creek, some four miles in length, divides the NY City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, and is the second active federal Superfund site there, following Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, said the New York Times. Potentially harmful contaminants such as pesticides, metals, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have been detected in Newtown Creek along with volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Being placed on the Superfund’s NPL, is, wrote the New York Times, a designation meant for the worst contaminated locations. NY’s regional administrator, Judith Enck, announced Newton Creek’s designation yesterday, said the New York Times.

“The toxic pollution in Newtown Creek is more than a century in the making. EPA is placing Newtown Creek on the Superfund list to ensure the creek receives a thorough cleanup,” said EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck.

VOCs are potentially harmful contaminants that can easily evaporate into the air. PCBs—which include upwards of 200 compounds—are a class of very toxic chemicals ubiquitously found in construction materials and electrical products produced from the 1950s and until the 1979 ban. Despite the phase-out, PCBs may be found in products and materials produced before the 1979 PCB ban, which means that PCBs turn up in the environment, wreaking havoc to aquatic and human health.

PCBs do not easily degrade and do bioaccumulate, infiltrating plants, crops, fish, and small organisms, ultimately reaching those who eat these products. Because of this, nearly every human being carries some PCB in his/her body, which can also be passed from mothers to children during pregnancy and in breast milk. PCBs can remain in our bodies for many years; the longer we live, the more these toxins build in our systems, increasing in strength over time.

Despite the ongoing pollution problems, some residents use the creek recreationally and to fish. Adverse health effects, including cancer and other life-threatening diseases and disorders, have been linked to PCB exposure. The potential health effects of these dangerous chemicals over the past five decades are stunning.

In the mid-1800s, the area adjacent to the creek was one of the city’s busiest industrial hubs, home to oil refineries, petrochemical plants, fertilizer and glue factories, sawmills, and lumber and coal yards. The creek was crowded with commercial vessels bringing in raw materials and fuel and taking out oil, chemicals, and metals; the city began dumping raw sewage in 1856. Some factories and facilities still operate along it; various adjacent contaminated sites have contributed to its contamination, rendering it badly polluted and, in the early 1990s, it was declared by NY State as not meeting water quality standards under the Clean Water Act.

The NY Times pointed out that the cleanup focuses on the creek’s water and sediment and not the nearby land contamination in Greenpoint, Brooklyn’s. Exxon Mobil and BP—BP maintains an active petroleum storage area nearby—are recovering oil from underneath their properties there in a cleanup being overseen by NY State, said the NY Times. The oil companies and NY City are among those entities likely to be identified by the agency as so-called responsible parties and which will be financially culpable in cleanup efforts, noted the NY Times.

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