The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

The Creek from the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge

with one comment


newtwn_HDR_IMG_8317_19.jpg, originally uploaded by Mitch Waxman.

Newtown Creek has long been home to the oil and petroleum industries. Famously, the underground Greenpoint oil spill is the largest in U.S. history and can be tied back to John D. Rockefeller‘s Standard Oil (now Exxon). The extent of contamination by oil, however is just the tip of the iceberg.
A quarter of New York City’s raw sewage is dumped directly into the creek. It mixes with 19th century pollutants like coal tar and naptha to form what Bernie Ente calls “Black Mayonnaise”. Estimates say that there’s anywhere from 10-20 feet of this unctious ooze coating the bottom. The waters of the Creek aren’t a death sentence, just a multi day stay in the hospital for a course of broad spectrum antibiotics.

from the Environmental Protection Agency:

Newtown Creek is a part of the New York – New Jersey Harbor Estuary that forms the northernmost border between the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. In the mid 1800s, the area adjacent to the 3.8 mile Newtown Creek was one of the busiest hubs of industrial activity in New York City.  More than 50 refineries 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.  In addition to the industrial pollution that resulted from all of this activity, the city began dumping raw sewage directly into the water in 1856.  During World War II, the creek was one of the busiest ports in the nation. Currently, factories and facilities still operate along the creek. Various contaminated sites along the creek have contributed to the contamination at Newtown Creek.  Today, as a result of its industrial history, including countless spills, Newtown Creek is one of the nation’s most polluted waterways. 

Various sediment and surface water samples have been taken along the creek. Pesticides, metals, PCBs, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are potentially harmful contaminants that can easily evaporate into the air, have been detected at the creek. 

In the early 1990s, New York State declared that Newtown Creek was not meeting water quality standards under the Clean Water Act.  Since then, a number of government sponsored cleanups of the creek have taken place. The New York City Department of Environmental Protection has sampled sediment and surface water at a number of locations along the creek since 1980.  In 2009, EPA will further sample the sediment throughout the length of Newtown Creek and its tributaries.  The samples will be analyzed for a wide range of industrial contaminants.  EPA will use the data collected to define the nature of the environmental problems associated with Newtown Creek as a whole.


During the 1970’s, there were fears that a casually tossed cigarette would ignite the water.

Written by Mitch Waxman

May 29, 2009 at 1:56 pm

One Response

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  1. as you so aptly state…
    “During the 1970’s, there were fears that a casually tossed cigarette would ignite the water.”

    Back in 69 a river leading into Lake Erie actually did catch fire due to pollution….

    I accidentally lived near there for a few months. All I can really say about my experiences in Ohio is “Whups”.


    June 11, 2009 at 3:36 pm

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