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Cleaning Up Newtown Creek, New York

2010 June 22

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.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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12 Responses leave one →
  1. Laura Hofmann permalink
    June 22, 2010

    I’m very happy that EPA is finally interested in Newtown Creek. As far as this article goes however, why don’t you tell us something that the community doesn’t already know? Have you dove into Newtown Creek? If so, what did you see. A Brooklyn Organization called the Urban Divers once dove into the mouth of the Newtown Creek during an Environmental Festival at Manhattan Ave & Newtown Creek. The video was on land for the audience to view. What we saw was absolutely nothing. The Creek, accordinging to diver Ludger Balan, was absolutely murky.

  2. William H permalink
    June 22, 2010

    a pretty good desciption of the problem. Why not use this post to talk in depth about “what we do best.” Sadly you’ve glossed over that and have lost the opportunity to talk about the nuts and bolts of “what we do best.” One exmple, what level will the clean up be conducted. 24 years? I think you, or your editor/ supervisor, have spent too much time at a desk and not enough talking to people.

  3. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    June 22, 2010

    This is an important story. It sounds like Newtown Creek will be a multi-article story like cleaning up the Hudson was. More stories on the Newtown Creek situation are needed providing more details of what is and what will be going on and how will people be protected from polluted water. But this article serves as a good introduction. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

  4. Lori Latimer permalink
    June 23, 2010

    This was an interesting aspect of resources and skills used by the EPA. Thank you for this insight.

  5. Bruce Duncan permalink
    June 24, 2010

    Thankyou Laura,

    You are right, the community would know the most. This blog hopefully will help share the story of Newtown Creek with others and begin to call some attention to EPA’s new Urban Waters Initiative announced last fall by Administrator Lisa Jackson. Those of us involved with moving this initiative forward recognize very clearly the central role local communities have in developing their vision for their nearby waters and adjacent communities and the role of government agencies in helping to support that vision.

    You can find more information at:

    No, I haven’t dove into Newtown Creek, but I have done my share of underwater investigations in other urban waterways especially in urban bays of Puget Sound, WA. If you click on the first link in the blog you can easily navigate the site and see pictures and some video clips of diving operations. Thanks for your description from the Urban Divers Ludger Balan. It does not surprise me that there is low visibility; the bottom sediments have been described as thick pudding and there is very little flow to move these fine particles, which are easily suspended (as we saw by the prop wash in our boat tour), out of the Creek.

    While this waterway and others in the NYC area (e.g., Gowanus Canal) are being investigated and cleaned up I would urge divers to use caution. EPA divers use protective (i.e., drysuits, full face mask) gear and follow a decontamination plan.

    As work continues on Newtown Creek look for new postings on the second link above.

    Thanks for your comments!

  6. Bruce Duncan permalink
    June 24, 2010

    William – Thanks for your comments.

    These blogs are designed to be short with a goal to try connect a little on the human side and so will likely not have the depth you mention. I agree with you that government employees should take opportunities to talk to people. People/you pay our salaries, we work for them/you and we have that responsibility to listen. I have found during diving operations, we invariably have the opportunity to talk with people in the area where we might be installing monitoring equipment, collecting samples, or documenting conditions with video. There is usually great interest in hearing about conditions underwater and a lot of questions – after all these are the folks that are fishing, swimming, kayaking, etc. Another valuable opportunity in connecting with people is at public meetings. As an expert in the area of ecological risk assessment I appreciate the learning back and forth that occurs at these meetings when EPA shares its work and findings. And, too, there is great value in talking with local community groups. For example, I was able to meet recently with the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition and discuss the wonderful visioning project they did with residents, businesses, governments, and users of the Lower Duwamish Waterway (Seattle, WA). What better way to assist a community than help support their own vision!

    I am heartened that you would like to learn more about nuts and bolts of what EPA does best. The example you give, clean up levels, generates a lot of interest because those levels need to be protective of human health and the environment, and they are significant determinants of clean up cost. EPA does have protective levels for water and a few for sediment. Determining the clean up levels for other contaminants and media requires a lot of site-specific information and occurs during the remedial investigation and feasibility study. I encourage you to follow events at Newtown Creek via the second link in the blog.

  7. Tanya permalink
    June 30, 2010

    Officials very seldom speak with people. I think they should a thicket recall for what they borrow high positions. It would put the end to many questions.

  8. Bruce Duncan permalink
    July 7, 2010

    Thanks for your comments Michael. I hope there will be more stories as the cleanup progresses and that you will continue your interest in what happens to urban waters where EPA is involved.

  9. Bruce Duncan permalink
    July 7, 2010


    Thank you for your comments. Diving for science to be EPA’s eyes under water has been very rewarding. It gets EPA past the old saying, “out of sight, out of mind.” And, seeing areas where water and sediment improve over time is equally rewarding. After all, a healthy ecosystem supports healthy communities.

  10. Bruce Duncan permalink
    July 7, 2010


    Thanks for taking the time to comment. As I indicated above, speaking with people is very important to EPA. In fact it is one of the aspects I very much enjoy, because I work for the environment and am paid by taxpayers. It is always best to learn from those we serve.

  11. Sean Sheldrake permalink
    July 12, 2010

    To follow onto Dr. Duncan’s comments above, I wanted to emphasize that diving in urban waters with known or unknown levels of contamination does indeed warrant additional protective measures. EPA divers, including our two hazmat units in Seattle, WA and Edison, NJ are in a medical monitoring program which includes immunizations before beginning training. Once medically cleared, the diver must undergo a week of hazardous materials training to understand the issues involved with polluted water diving. Then the diver goes to one to three weeks of scientific diver training. Once fully trained, our divers stay fully dry (drysuit, dry gloves, full face mask at a minimum), employ decontamination procedures to protect the diver and tenders, and receive annual follow up surveillance exams.

    For more information on EPA diving and diving in polluted waters, please see:

    or google “EPA dive team.”

    Sean Sheldrake, RPM, Unit Diving Officer
    USEPA, Region 10
    Environmental Cleanup Office
    1200 Sixth Avenue, Suite 900, ECL-110
    Seattle WA 98101-3140
    Phone: 206/553-1220 / Fax: 206/553-0124
    Region 10 Dive Team:

  12. Nick permalink
    January 11, 2011

    Great article, thanks for sharing and taking the time to discuss this.

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