The Newtown Pentacle

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Breaking windows, on the Newtown Creek.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Recent controversy, and there’s always controversy, revolving around the Newtown Creek Superfund project has been swirling. Here’s the situation, which requires a bit of prologue for the uninitiated.

The Federal EPA has listed Newtown Creek as a Superfund site, which makes them the executive power responsible for its cleanup according to a bit of legislation called CERCLA. The EPA named several corporate entities as “PRP’s” or “Potentially Responisble Parties” who are culpable for the despoilment of the environment hereabouts. These PRP’s are the usual suspects – Oil companies, Gas Companies, a refinery. There are five of them, all conglomerate entities which absorbed one historic property or another over the years – ExxonMobil, National Grid, etc. There’s a sixth party which hasn’t been “officially” designated a PRP, which is the NYC DEP, a governmental entity responsible for (amongst other things) the sewer system of New York City.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As you’d expect, every one of the PRP’s wants to get out of this Superfund thing having spent as little as is possible on the cleanup. This is normal, and logical. The Corporations have an army of lawyers, and so does the DEP. Finger pointing is also normal in a situation like this, just as it would be for children who broke a school window while playing baseball. The corporate PRP’s are in the position of having to protect their shareholders from undue costs, as is the DEP in the case of taxpayers. Again, broken school window, baseball. The difference between government and corporation, however… well, the corporate manager will accept the fact that he’s cooked for breaking the pane and that it’s cheaper to just fix the window and get on with the business of earning money, while the government will try and tell you that the window shouldn’t have been there in the first place but the school they built needed windows by law so you just have to accept the broken window until next spring when the “new and better placed window bill” will be heroically sent to an indifferent Albany… and that after a sixteen year period of committee hearings… and… terrorists… and… Basically, they pass the buck down to the next election cycle. I’m prejudiced, I guess, as I always worked corporate and understand the internal processes a lot better than the intentionally Byzantine workings of government officialdom.

This is where the Federal EPA comes in, in their executive function. All of the PRP’s have contracted with environmental testing firms to perform the schedule of analysis which EPA requires in order to design a remedy for the environmental situation on the Newtown Creek. When the remedy is codified, it will be contractors hired by those self same PRP’s which will do the actual work, under Federal oversight. Meantime, everybody is blaming everybody else for whatever they can, hoping the other guy gets stuck with paying to fix the busted window.

A recent presentation offered by the NYC DEP discussed a process called “Ebullition.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Coal Tar Sludge is pretty ugly stuff, if you’re alive. It’s a by product of the gasification of coal, a product of what was once called “pneumatic chemistry.” National Grid is a multinational conglomerate that owns the holdings of what was once Brooklyn Union Gas in New York City. BUG had a massive manufactured gas plant at the border of Bushwick, Williamsburg, and Greenpoint. In the waters of Newtown Creek found off the National Grid bulkheads, NYC DEP’s environmental contractors observed an astounding 18 feet of coal tar sludge in the sediments of Newtown Creek. Natural processes – springs and ground water entering the bed of the waterway from below, for instance – cause bits of this coal tar sludge to migrate out of the sediment bed, which is called “Black Mayonnaise.”

The environmental types refer to this sort of thing as NAPL, or Non Aqueous Phase Liquid. That’s a fancy way of indicating that oil and water don’t mix, as the coal tar sludge – like petroleum – remains distinct from the water column surrounding it.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Pictured above is one of those bubbles of NAPL, or Coal Tar sludge which found its way to the surface of the water via the ebullition process. Surface tension breaks the bubble and begins to spread it into a disc. Presuming it doesn’t end up coating a bulkhead or rock somewhere between here and the East River, by the time this coal tar sludge reaches the east river it will just look like a bit of oil spread out over an area of several feet.

The NYC DEP, and their contractors, presented findings which suggested that as much as 5,000 KG of this stuff migrates up from the bottom sediments annually. They offered that in comparison, the combined sewers operated by DEP (which along Newtown Creek are amongst the largest in NYC) only deposit 27 KG of solute into the water. They also spent quite a bit of time critiquing the corporate PRP’s Contractor’s methodologies and procedures. After the presentation, it was time for questions and I asked a few pointed ones.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Is this 18 feet of coal tar sludge an ongoing or historic event? 

“Good question” was the answer.

Given the fact that DEP has been paying fines on the combined sewers to the Feds since 1983, coincidentally the same year that DEP was created, you must have good records of what’s been flowing out of your pipes since then. That 27 KG number, how does it compare historically with those records?

“We’ll have to get back to you.”

I’m certain that – historically – some of that coal tar and petroleum in the sediment bed must have been carried into the water from upland sources via your pipes, when you observed this 18 foot high wall of coal tar sludge, did you notice if any of your out falls were nearby?

“The sewers have never carried oil, it’s illegal”

But what about the 1950’s when Greenpoint’s aquifer was on fire, and the sixties when manhole covers were erupting on gouts of flame, and the 80’s when it was discovered that petroleum fumes in the sewer pipes were above the upper explosive limit?

“Sir, I don’t know what you think the DEP has done to you, but on behalf of the Agency I’d like to apologize”

That’s called “crackpotting” btw. and that pissed me off.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Are the folks who run oil companies a bunch of bastards? You bet. Global Gas conglomerates are not operated by nice guys either, nor copper refineries. Know how Rockefeller made his money? Wasn’t by being a cool guy. Anybody in a position of real power is by definition “kind of a dick.” Obama would pull your tongue out and strangle you with it if he had to, but he doesn’t because there’s thousands of people who work for him that are specially trained to do so. Just because you work for the Government it doesn’t mean you’re some sort of altruist.

I cannot count the number of lies I’ve been told by employees of the NYC DEP over the years. Promises made last only as long as a Commissioner’s term, or a Mayor’s. Saying that, this is just one tiny sliver – the political and managerial department of the Agency – of an enormous 6,000 person organization which manages and polices the reservoirs, runs 14 sewer plants, possesses a small navy, handles air and noise environmental issues citywide, and has a $1.2 Billion budget. I’ve known people who work for the DEP that are amazing, and I’ve also met the political gasbags.

This is not some little mom and pop operation, the DEP.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Thing is, what the DEP management team is trying to do is to reduce their exposure to having to pay out for the cleaning up of the so called “Black Mayonnaise” which sits 20-30 feet deep in the Newtown Creek, and I can’t say I blame them. Like any entity, corporate or otherwise, they will have to pass the costs of this operation on to their customers.

Unlike a corporation, which would be put into a competitive advantage should it be forced to raise prices and drive customers to a competitor’s cheaper products, there is unfortunately only one City government to be found and you just have to pay the taxes that they inflict. There is no political will to raise water taxes in NYC after a roughly 400% rise in rates which occurred during the 12 years of Michael Bloomberg’s administration… so… do the math. The DEP people will say and do anything to avoid culpability, or delay the inevitable as long as they can and pass the buck to some new Mayor or Commisioner.

Crackpot me? Don’t piss off the photographer, doc, I’ve got pictures to back my side up.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

There’s a saying which was passed down to me by my Dad and Uncles who had served in the military – “It’s a big shit sandwich and we all have to take a bite, so grab a napkin.”

Since the Superfund listing for Newtown Creek was made public, a humble narrator has been prophesying that the most interesting part of this story wasn’t going to be the oil companies trying to snake out of town and deny responsibility. Simply put, that’s the expensive way to go for them, as the courts and Feds will just stack fines up on them which they’ll have to pay IN ADDITION to the costs of the cleanup. It’s simpler, and cheaper, to cooperate. Nope, since the beginning of this tale I’ve been saying that “the fascinating part of this story will be watching the vertical silos of power in NYC’s government struggle and writhe against a higher authority.” Local authority, even that juggernaut in lower Manhattan, legally collapses before that of the Federal Government.

The EPA said that they’re willing to consider DEP’s Ebullitions study, and it’s data, but won’t be basing their decisions on either local government or corporate side’s assertions. The same DEP official who “crack potted” me in the earlier discussion mentioned above, upon hearing the EPA pronounce the substance of this statement, announced to a room full of people that DEP’s data “is just as good, if not better, or far better than EPA’s.” This is from the same official who claimed that it wasn’t going to be Superfund that cleans the Creek, rather DEP’s Long Term Control Plan – which is being designed by the same “ass coverers” and bureaucrats who haven’t done squat about it since the agency was created in 1983 by merging several smaller municipal entities which were responsible in the first place for dumping raw sewage into the waterway every time it rains.

Anyway, that’s the whole Ebullition thing for you, and a bunch of PRP’s who broke a window while playing ball. The one who threw the ball, the one who hit the ball, and the rest of the field. Meanwhile the window is hanging wide open and it’s raining into the school.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

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