Newtown Creek

Superfund in the Big Apple

By Elias Rodriguez

New York City may soon notch a third site on the EPA’s Superfund list of the nation’s most hazardous waste sites. The candidate is the Wolff-Alport Chemical Company site, a defunct business that processed and sold minerals containing thorium from the 1920s to 1954 in Ridgewood, Queens. Wolff-Alport imported monazite sands, rich in thorium, from central Africa. The site is currently radioactively contaminated, although the risks from this residual radioactive contamination do not represent a health concern in the short-term, it could pose a health risk under certain long-term exposure scenarios. Additional investigation and remedial work is needed, so the EPA is proposing that Wolff-Alport be added to the National Priorities List of Superfund sites.

A lot of work has already been done at the site. The EPA installed protective shielding on portions of the site that will prevent nearby residents, employees and customers of area businesses from being exposed to elevated gamma radiation from below the surface. The shielding material included concrete, lead and steel, depending on the area.

Reporters often ask me to compare the cleanup work at the two other NYC Superfund sites, the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek.  The Gowanus Canal was built in the 19th century to ease the transport of goods and services. After its completion in the 1860s, the canal became a busy industrial waterway including manufactured gas plants, coal yards, concrete-mixing facilities, tanneries, chemical plants, and oil refineries. Sadly, it also became a giant receptacle for untreated industrial waste, raw sewage and runoff. EPA’s $506 million Gowanus cleanup will require the removal of contaminated sediment and the capping of dredged areas. The plan also includes controls to reduce sewage overflows and other land-based sources of pollution from ruining the cleanup.

Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal share a legacy of urban and industrial pollution as major arteries in the City’s transportation system. In the late 1800s and throughout most of the 1900s, Newtown was replete with sprawling oil refineries, petrochemical plants, factories, plants, sugar refineries, canneries, sawmills, and lumber and coal yards. Similarly, the creek is negatively impacted by discharges from combined sewer overflows and sewer treatment plants.

Where the Superfund sites differ significantly is in the status, or better said, where they are situated on the Superfund Roadmap.  In 2013, the EPA issued a Record of Decision for the Gowanus cleanup. This milestone document explains what cleanup alternatives the Agency has decided are the best choice to clean up a Superfund site. In the case of the Gowanus, the decision document came after the EPA held a 120-day period to receive public comments and hosted two formal public meetings. Prior to the Record of Decision, the Agency evaluated more than 1,800 e-mails, letters, postcards and petitions about the cleanup. Conversely, Newtown Creek is a few years away from a Record of Decision. Currently, the creek is undergoing assiduous sampling and study as part of the EPA’s Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Study. During this phase, the EPA will determine the nature and extent of contamination. This scientific work is expected to be completed in 2018 and would be followed by a proposed cleanup plan for the public’s consideration.

Another NYC site, the Radium Chemical Company site at 60-06 27th Avenue, Queens was on the Superfund list from 1989 to 1995 when the EPA led a successful cleanup of a radioactively-contaminated plant that no longer poses a threat to public health or the environment. It has since been delisted.

Naysayers claim that placing these sites on the Superfund list creates a stigma and is “bad for business.” Protecting human health and the environment is EPA’s first concern, but there is ample evidence to suggest that a Superfund cleanup can help communities and be a boon to local commerce by creating economic opportunity and using innovative technologies to mitigate contamination in a cost-effective manner. A cleanup also gives rise to redevelopment of an area that was once blighted, thus returning a contaminated property to the community and the tax rolls.

About the Author: Elias serves as EPA Region 2’s bilingual public information officer. Prior to joining EPA, the proud Nuyorican worked at Time Inc. conducting research for TIME, LIFE, FORTUNE and PEOPLE magazines. He is a graduate of Hunter College, Baruch College and the Theological Institute of the Assembly of Christian Churches in NYC.

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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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.

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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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