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Newtown Creek: The Unseen Stream That Keeps New York City Flowing

Text and Photos by Gloria Dawson Riverkeeper’s patrol boat glides along Newtown Creek in New York City. Like a cruise ship captain leading a voyage through environmental hell, Phillip Musegaas points out oil slicks, the sewage treatment plant, and the huge pipes where raw sewage flows into the creek every time it rains. He notes...

Text and Photos by Gloria Dawson

Riverkeeper’s patrol boat glides along Newtown Creek in New York City. Like a cruise ship captain leading a voyage through environmental hell, Phillip Musegaas points out oil slicks, the sewage treatment plant, and the huge pipes where raw sewage flows into the creek every time it rains.

He notes the few places where, despite the destruction, nature has found a way.  There are egrets nesting along the bulkheads, and patches of tall grass have sprung up from abandoned docks along the four-mile waterway.

Riverkeeper, an environmental group that focuses much of its attention on New York waterways, has been fighting for Newtown Creek’s cleanup since 2002. The creek is situated between Queens and Brooklyn and has been polluted by oil spills and decades of sewage.

Between the late 1800s to the mid 1900s, it was one of the most active industrial waterways in the country; along the shores of the creek were dozens of lucrative oil refineries.  Those refineries spilled an estimated 17 million to 30 million gallons of oil. Today, much of that oil remains underground, rendering land undevelopable, oozing under nearby homes and destroying aquatic life.

Riverkeeper was instrumental in helping the creek receive Superfund designation, which was announced in 2010, and which means $300 million to $500 million for cleanup efforts. The company largely responsible for the spill, Exxon, “is doing everything they’re supposed to be doing under the cleanup plan,” said Musegaas, a lawyer who works for Riverkeeper.

The Sewage Problem

But Superfund is just one step in the creek’s recovery, according to Riverkeeper, which has its sights on another big issue: sewage.  One and a half billion gallons of combined sewage overflow are swept into the creek every year.

“Newtown Creek is the cost of Manhattan,” said Mitch Waxman, who acts as the Newtown Creek Alliance historian and tour guide. “If you flush a toilet in Manhattan, the water goes into the creek.” But there’s another side to the creek as well: business. “The organic peach you bought this morning came from a warehouse on Newtown Creek. It’s the central backbone of New York City.”

The state Department of Environmental Protection is sometimes friend, sometimes foe to Riverkeeper and other environmentalists, who say neither the Superfund plan nor government agencies have a sewage abatement strategy for this hard working creek. The state government’s latest investment in the creek is a $115 million aeration system. The system pumps oxygen into the creek, increasing water circulation and oxygenating the waterway to the level of federal water quality standards.

“I don’t blame them,” said John Lipscomb, Riverkeeper’s patrol boat captain. “What they are trying to do by bubbling is oxygenate the water enough to meet the standard. But that doesn’t make the water better in the long term. We’re interested in fixing problems not masking them. We’re not interested in finding regulatory loopholes.”

“Aeration systems are cost-effective measures that can be designed, implemented, and phased in to enhance water quality in the near-term,” wrote Corey Chambliss, deputy press secretary at the DEP in an email. “Specifically, the proposed system would increase dissolved oxygen levels, which will improve the ecological habitat of Newtown Creek.”

Part of the motivation for getting the creek up to acceptable water quality standards is to entice people to start using it again, because “use really does increase people’s connection to a place,” said University of Cincinnati professor and environmental historian David Stradling.

But the aeration plan might just as readily lead to more problems for the creek—and actively dissuade visitors. “Aeration is a way of improving water quality,” said Stradling. “But I have been around aerated water, and that air passing around will bring up smells. There’s no doubt about it.” Recent studies have also suggested that the aeration process may add bacteria to the air.

Natural Habitat

Riverkeeper and a local group working to revive the creek, the Newtown Creek Alliance, hope that the DEP will incorporate natural habitat into the restoration plans. “Marshes are great for cleaning water,” said Lipscomb. “You can use a marsh as a sewage treatment plant. Obviously there’s no marsh that can deal with that amount of sewage. But anything you do there is going to be an improvement. The natural world is waiting at the door, and the reason it can’t really come in and settle down is that we’ve beaten that creek so hard.”

The problem for Newtown Creek is that locals don’t seem to have the deep connections that have helped inspire restoration movements around the country in the past. Stradling mentions the old Ghirardelli factory in San Francisco that was restored and made into a mixed used space, in part, due to the connections locals felt for the building. “Obviously that was a chocolate factory, a bit different than a toxic zone,” Stradling said.

There is one river in New York that made a complete turnaround: The Hudson. Newtown Creek is in much worse shape than the Hudson, said Stradling. But that doesn’t mean it’s helpless. “One way to contrast Newtown Creek and the Hudson is that so many people are connected to the Hudson visually, said Stradling. “They past it on the train” even if they didn’t directly live or work near the river. “Newtown Creek is much more of a local issue,” he said. It will be difficult to convince the community of its value unless it becomes symbolic.

“Newtown Creek is an essential link to the chain that allows the unsustainable city of Manhattan to sustain itself,” said Mitch Waxman. “A lot of people ask me ‘what’s my relationship with Newtown Creek. I live in Manhattan.’ If you’ve ever ordered from Fresh Direct, you’ve ordered food from Newtown Creek. I can take you where you’ll find the chicken that’s served at Chinese restaurants.”

The Riverkeeper patrol boat passes behind the Fresh Direct building, a poultry supplier, and dozens of other unseen industries. Food deliveries at any time of day or night might be a quintessential New York City experience, but thinking about where those goods come from isn’t. Most New Yorkers feel as much connection to Newtown Creek as they do to their delivery guy.

And why should they? The murky green-brown water takes their waste and keeps on slowly flowing out of sight and out of mind.


Mayteta Clark contributed reporting to this story.

Gloria Dawson is a New York City-based multimedia journalist. She has written for the Wall Street Journal, Columbia Journalism Review, Quartz, Mashable, The Daily Green, Shape magazine and othersFollow her on Twitter.

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