The Environmental Protection Agency has announced that it will use the resources, oversight, and enforcement power of the Federal Superfund Program to clean Newtown Creek in a comprehensive and coordinated manner – complementing efforts initiated by the Newtown Creek Alliance. NCA supports the EPA Superfund cleanup and expects that throughout the planning and remediation process EPA and its partners will take into account the concerns of existing industrial and manufacturing businesses on the Creek, help realize community-supported development projects that are already on the drawing board, and ensure enforcement of long-standing water quality and property remediation goals.
While New York State and the City of New York have committed significant attention and resources to the remediation and restoration of Newtown Creek over the past several years, a clean Creek is inconceivable without federal support. Sixty years ago, when the Creek was the busiest industrial port in the Northeastern United States, oil refineries, fertilizer factories, and chemical plants lined the banks of the Creek and unregulated dumping and production tainted the waters, contaminated the soils, and polluted the air. While industrial polluters are now the exception rather than the norm, efforts to revitalize the Creek are stymied by both historic contamination and the continuing discharge of billions of gallons of untreated sewage from combined sewer overflow events.
Because of the proximity of the Creek to hundreds of thousands of workers and residents, contamination from the Creek poses a direct threat to human health. While the NCA is currently working with the New York State Department of Health to conduct a comprehensive epidemiological study of Newtown Creek neighborhoods, residents have known for decades that there are unusually high levels of rare cancers and autoimmune diseases. Only with federal help can a comprehensive and thorough assessment of the impact of Creek contamination on human health be understood, much less stopped.
Indeed, the Superfund Program was created to address contaminated sites like Newtown Creek. There are numerous parties responsible for the contamination, many of which are no longer fiscally solvent, and the various plumes of contamination continue to migrate over hundreds of property lots in a dense urban area. The Creek area is a mega-site that the state alone cannot address. The federal government’s expertise and resources are necessary to ensure the Creek and its surrounding neighborhoods become healthy places to live.
Members of the NCA are enthusiastic about working with the EPA and excited about realizing a clean Creek through the Superfund Program. However, we want to adamantly reinforce our concerns that the planning and remediation process be conducted in a manner that minimizes negative impacts for the businesses and community supported development projects near the Creek. Further, any remedial plan adopted must include community-supported standards for water and sediment quality so as to allow the Creek to achieve swimmable status.
First, we insist that EPA takes every possible step to work with businesses so that they may understand early-on any potential liability and ways to minimize such liability. The EPA should offer de minimis settlements to small businesses who are not themselves responsible for Creek contamination. Moreover, we hope that the remediation plan itself will account for business operations so that companies are faced with as few disruptions as possible during remediation.
We also request that EPA enter into good-faith discussions with the City and State to ensure that community-supported development projects that a Superfund designation might threaten are realized on schedule. The community is particularly interested in making sure the planned dredging at the mouth of the Creek and along Whale Creek proceed as scheduled as does the construction of affordable housing at Hunter’s Point, and the construction of public open space at 65 Commercial Street in Brooklyn. It’s also important that the EPA quickly identify staging sites during the course of remediation so that developers may move forward with plans for other sites.
Finally, while we recognize that EPA will only be charged with remediating Creek sediments and improving water quality, we hope the EPA will keep in mind the long-term goals of the community: a swimmable Newtown Creek. The community has been working with the City for years now to address combined sewer overflows into the Creek, both by participating in the Long Term Control Plan public meetings and proactively seeking the implementation of alternative storm water management practices in the Creek watershed. To the extent that EPA can support such efforts it will satisfy the Superfund Program’s statutory preference for remedial actions that demonstrate long-term effectiveness.