By Ashley Balavender
Little known to many Brooklyn and Queens residents, Newtown Creek, a tributary of the East river that splits the two boroughs, is the site of one of the world’s largest oil spills. In addition to sewage, chemical and toxic waste dumping and runoff, the 3.8 mile creek is the site of an underground oil seepage that has left an estimated 17 to 30 million gallons of oil in the water and surrounding soil. While Newtown Creek has finally gained media recognition in the last year, being designated a federal Superfund site in September 2010, a group of students and faculty at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, Queens have been monitoring the contaminated water for over two years. Under the direction of Dr. Sarah Durand, professor in the College’s Natural Sciences department, they are now working to begin natural remediation of toxins from the creek long before the Environmental Protection Agency begins its clean up.
A Murky Past
If you have ever crossed the Pulaski Bridge from Long Island City into Greenpoint, you’ve gone over Newtown Creek. The creek is an estuary that is affected by the tides and contains five smaller tributaries: Dutch Kills, Maspeth Creek, Whale Creek, the East Branch and English Kills. Although it is hard to imagine now, before the Civil War the areas surrounding Newtown Creek and its tributaries were home to beautiful green marshlands. Beginning in the middle of the 1800s, it became home to oil and kerosene refineries, and according to the Newtown Creek Alliance’s History site, “By the 1920s and 30s, the Creek was a major shipping hub and was widened, deepened, and bulkheaded to accommodate bigger barges, destroying all its fresh water sources.” Because the government wasn’t closely regulating what was dumped into the water, hundreds of businesses along the creek used it as an inexpensive disposal for industrial waste.
Equally disturbing is the fact that Newtown Creek continues to be inundated with sewage when combined sewage overflows or CSOs are piped into the creek. Many City dwellers do not realize that when it rains, all of the rain runoff that is collected through storm drains combines with the sewage that is disposed from our toilets. Because the antiquated pipe system can only hold so much water, the excess water – feces and all – is dumped into the rivers surrounding the city in 460 locations. “We are releasing our sewage directly into the environment that we live around,” says Greg O’Mullen who is a professor at Queens College and Columbia University and who works with Riverkeeper, a New York advocate for clean water. “And yet, you typically don’t hear about it on the nightly news.” For Newtown Creek, this is an especially big problem not only because of the other forms of pollution, but because the estuary is no long receiving a flow of fresh water.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that the Federal Government noticed the giant plume of oil coming up from the bed of the creek. It was even more recently that the oil spill was brought to public light in a 2004 lawsuit filed by Riverkeeper against ExxonMobile who claimed to have removed at least half of the oil spilled. According to the suit filed by Riverkeeper, only 3 million gallons of oil had been remediated. Finally, after a good deal of fighting from community residents, Newtown Creek was put on the EPA’s Superfund list, which secures it federal funding and clean-up efforts. The community was also awarded $10 million dollars by the New York Attorney General’s office for the failure of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection to abide by their water quality standards.
The EPA’s initial investigation and testing at the creek began this fall and will be paid for by groups considered liable for the pollution, including BP America, Phelps Dodge Refinery, Exxon, Texaco, National Grid and the City of New York. “We first have to define the problems, and there are many, before the actual cleanup can begin,” said Remedial Project Manager Caroline Kwan at an October 27 community information session. The remedial investigation is estimated to cost between $20 and $25 million and will take five to seven years to complete. The entire cleanup process is projected by the EPA to cost $300 to 400 million and could take an additional 15 years or more. In the meantime, a group of dedicated faculty and students at LaGuardia Community College are using a portion of the $10 million award, administered by the City Parks Foundation, to get cleanup started right away.
Professor Sarah Durand’s work never ceases. Each time we’ve met, she has been in the midst of carrying out a bold initiative to help Newtown Creek, while writing letters, drafting proposals and applying for grants for another bold initiative to help Newtown Creek. It all started in 2009, when Dr. Durand heard about the work that Professor Greg O’Mullen of Queens College and Columbia University was doing with Riverkeeper. Professor O’Mullen had been testing water in various parts of the Hudson to contribute to Riverkeeper’s Swimmable River Campaign. Dr. Durand hoped to start a similar project at Newtown Creek, engaging LaGuardia students, and she called on O’Mullen for guidance. After an initial trip to the creek with O’Mullen, and after purchasing the necessary equipment with a Title V grant, Dr. Durand began recruiting students to help her monitor Newtown Creek. “It was all word of mouth,” she says. “By asking individuals who I know were interested in research, who were strong in science and who were activists, this is how we got a small group together.”
Since the summer of 2009, Dr. Durand, Adjunct Instructor John Landers and a handful of LaGuardia students have been visiting Newtown Creek twice a week to monitor the water’s temperature, pH, oxygen levels and salinity and to gather water samples that they test in the lab for turbidity and for Enterococcus and E. Coli, which are coliforms found in sewage. For over two years, the group has been dedicated to the work, uploading their results to a data spreadsheet.
“It was a big surprise when we first started going down there, how much life there actually is,” says John Landers. “You see this amazing potential,” Dr. Durand says describing the numerous inter-tidal species she’s spotted at the creek. “We’ve seen burrowing worms. I once saw a fiddler crab dash across the mud.” Although she points out that you wouldn’t want to eat the mussels or crabs found there, the signs of life that the group spotted were both encouraging and inspiring. Dr. Durand was inspired to take her work a step further, conceiving of a plan to use wetlands like those that once surrounded the creek to remediate oil and toxins from the water. This fall, Dr. Durand’s proposed “Constructed Wetlands Pilot Project” was awarded half a million dollars from the $10 million Newtown Creek Environmental Benefits Program, and it is already underway.
The “Constructed Wetlands” are lightweight, terraced shelves that will be installed on the bulkheads along the creek and will contain filter feeders, sediments and Spartina grasses, all of which will naturally absorb and store toxins from the water.
“These suspension feeders are so effective at removing and storing contaminants,” says Dr. Durand, pointing out that a single adult mussel can filter 50 gallons of water daily. “So, the more wetland you can restore along the bulkheads, the higher the quality of water is going to be.” Placed strategically, the trays will even filter CSOs as they empty into the creek. “If this works well, we can move it anywhere,” Dr. Durand says. “We can move it into the Gowanus, into the East River, anywhere. It’s a pilot project.”
Bulkheads on Whale Creek are possible site for constructed wetland trays.
Made of lightweight steel tubing, the wetland trays will be moveable and will not interfere with any of the work that the EPA is doing to clean up the creek or the many boats and barges that navigate the creek. In fact, Dr. Durand has been asked to join the EPA’s Community Advisory Group. “There’s a lot of traffic on the creek and we would not want to impede that in any way,” she says. “The EPA is making sure that they have everybody in the community who has a concern about the creek on board with the vision of what ultimately will be obtained.”
Right now Civil Engineer David Bishop is designing the trays with input from Dr. Paul Mankiewicz, a biologist and plant scientist who works at Lehman College and is the Executive Director of the Gaia Institute. Meanwhile, Dr. Durand is selecting specific sites for the wetland trays. She is also looking for a site for an Education Shed funded by an award to LaGuardia Community College from the Hudson River Foundation that will house specimens found at the creek as well as two foot-pedaled kayaks recently purchased by the College.
For Dr. Durand, an integral part of all projects underway at the creek is student involvement. “The entire effort can only be enhanced by different components of the College coming in,” she says. Engineering students will be involved in the construction of the wetlands, Continuing Education Construction students will help to build the “Ed Shed” and Environmental Science students will have a hand in each. Even the College’s Commercial Photography program is interested in getting out on the creek. “Everybody is focusing on the same purpose,” says Renata Bermudez a LaGuardia research student in the National Institutes of Health Bridges to the Future Program.
While these projects are underway, Dr. Durand has not stopped looking further into the future. She already has her sights set on Dutch Kills, one of the creeks tributaries that is not used for commercial purposes. “That whole area could be converted into a beautiful marshland,” she explains. Until then, the constructed wetlands will be the first step. “If we can restore the wetlands, even build some steps there, life can get a toe-hold.”