Cleaning Up Newtown Creek, New York

Since 1986, I have had the privilege to be one of EPA’s sets of eyes underwater as a member of the EPA Dive Team in Region 10.  With a dry suit, dry gloves, and full face mask, diving safely into urban waters, such as the Lower Duwamish Waterway near Seattle, to coax their secrets for EPA’s programs.  After an intriguing diving “diet” of contaminated sediment to discharging groundwater laden with volatile compounds to thick layers of organic material best described as pudding, in support of EPA’s Superfund, RCRA, and Water Permitting and Compliance Programs, this spring was a propitious time to move my cross-program experience out of the water and along the banks of those waterways.

Although I have spent many hours on and in the Lower Duwamish Waterway, I have been fortunate to be temporarily assigned to work on Urban Waters.  I was recently invited to a boat tour of the Newtown Creek (between Queens and Brooklyn) on the EPA research vessel CleanWater on April 19, 2010. The Creek has been highly modified by urbanization – the wetlands that existed vanished with the rip-rap, bulk heading, infilling, and channelization (much of which similarly occurred along the Lower Duwamish Waterway). Like other urban waters, Newtown Creek is nevertheless fished and kayaked.


In the mid 1800s, the area adjacent to Newtown Creek was one of the busiest hubs of industrial activity in New York City. More than 50 industrial facilities were located along its banks, including oil refineries, petrochemical plants, fertilizer and glue factories, sawmills, and lumber and coal yards. The creek was crowded with commercial vessels, including large boats bringing in raw materials and fuel and taking out oil, chemicals and metals. The city later began dumping raw sewage directly into the water in 1856. During World War II, the creek had become one of the busiest ports in the nation. Some factories and facilities still operate along it, and various adjacent contaminated sites have contributed to its degradation.

Today Newtown Creek remains badly polluted. EPA is doing with our programs what we do best. We know now what the contamination is, where it is, and are developing the site-specific understanding and context, that, from my more programmatic view, allow us to move forward and clean up this urban water.

About the author: Dr. Bruce Duncan has been with EPA since 1984, trained as a marine biologist, and serves as senior ecologist in the Office of Environmental Assessment, Region 10, recently stepping down from the Regional dive team after 24 years. He assists with furthering the role of science in decision-making and is currently on a 4-month assignment to the Office of Brownfields and Land Revitalization assisting with the Urban Waters.