The Newtown Pentacle

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glittering pinnacles

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Nothing I like better than a bleak post industrial landscape.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Behind the scenes on this whole environmental cleanup thing, there’s a lot of arguing and derision. As you’d imagine, the Government people operate according to a series of byzantine rules and exceptions, as do the so called “PRP” or “Potentially Responsible Parties” who have admitted culpability, and responsibility for, cleaning up the historical mess they’ve created in Newtown Creek. The PRP’s are divided into two camps – one is a consortium of energy companies (National Grid, ExxonMobil, BP etc.) and the former copper refinery Phelps Dodge which have styled themselves as the “Newtown Creek Group” or NCG. The other is the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP, which despite its name and municipal mission is actually the biggest modern polluter of the waterway itself. The DEP’s sewer plant in Greenpoint is the largest source of greenhouse gases which you’ll find in Brooklyn, accounting for more climate changing emissions than the Battery Tunnel, believe it or not.

NCG and DEP are both on the hook for paying to clean things up on the Newtown Creek, as the agreement they signed with the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that defined them as PRP’s was essentially the environmental law equivalent of a plea bargain agreement. As you’d imagine, both sides are trying to point a finger at the other and trying to force them into paying a larger share of the cleanup bill.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The difference between DEP and NCG, of course, is that the latter are publicly traded corporate entities who can simply pass the cleanup costs on to their customer base. National Grid recently announced a rate hike to its customers in pursuance of this goal. DEP is funded by and is an agency of the City of New York, and is funded by water taxes. No elected official, especially the current Mayor of NYC, wants to announce that taxes are going up so DEP is fighting tooth and nail to appear as an innocent and aggrieved party despite the fact that they signed that “plea bargain” alongside the NCG admitting their culpability. DEP allows in excess of a billion gallons of untreated sewage, per annum, to enter the waterway. I wish I could give you an exact number, but that’s one of the things that everyone is arguing about. If it’s raining, at all, in NYC you’ve got (according to DEP) a 63% chance that their “CSO’s” or “combined sewer outfalls” are belching raw sewage directly into the water.

DEP has argued to the various community organizations that since “chemicals of concern,” as defined in the Superfund “CERCLA” regulations, aren’t being transported in this sewage flow that they’re not even sure why they’re part of the Superfund process. Notably, they don’t do this when EPA is in the room. Speaking as a member of a few of these community organizations, I’ve queried EPA about this, and pointed out that the sewage flow is carrying a literal shit ton of solute and floatable garbage along with it. 

– photo by Mitch Waxman

2016 was a pretty disappointing year on the Newtown Creek.

The City DEP is doing everything it can to wiggle out of fixing their mess. Their solution to the billion plus gallons of sewage which carry oxygen eating bacteria into the water is to spend hundreds of millions on an aeration system, which will – in essence – act as an aquarium bubble wand for the sewage. If they get the level of dissolved oxygen in the sewage high enough, they can tell the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation that they’ve solved the problem. The fact that the aeration system will be driven by electric air pumps, which will consume energy and produce greenhouse gases? Well, they’re under an order to increase the dissolved oxygen content of the water. The NYC Department of Environmental Protection is the largest modern source of ongoing water pollution on the Newtown Creek

On the historical pollution side, NCG is talking about using different “solutions” for the various regions of the Creek, which boil down to “dredge” versus “dredge and cap” versus “cap only” scenarios for removing the sediment bed of “Black Mayonnaise” which sits 20-30 feet deep along the waterway. The Black Mayonnaise is a witches brew of petroleum byproducts, coal tar, and everything else that’s ever been deposited in the water. The top layers, which represent about the last fifty years or so, were deposited by the DEP’s sewers, but the stuff at the bottom is industrial waste and spilt products which were manufactured by and belonged to Standard Oil’s refineries, Brooklyn Union Gas’s Manufactured Gas Plant, and Phelps Dodge’s acid factory and copper refinery. ExxonMobil, BP, National Grid etc. are the modern incarnations or inheritors of the energy companies mentioned above. Phelps Dodge acts a bit like a monster hiding under some kid’s bed in a dark room, and maintains a low profile. The oil and gas people are very much present in the conversation, however.

“Dredge and cap” means that the black mayonnaise will be entirely scraped away all the way down to the actual bottom of Newtown Creek, and that a layer of clay and “rip rap” (rocks) will be laid down to seal the bottom off from the water column.” “Cap only” means that the clay and rip rap will be installed OVER the sediment bed, which is a far cheaper scenario. NCG seems to be leaning towards the latter scenario for the extant tributaries like LIC’s Dutch Kills (pictured above), Maspeth Creek, and the East Branch in Ridgewood. This solution is quite a bit cheaper and easier to enact than the dredging one, which is why they’re pushing it, while dressing the plan up as “shoreline reconstruction” and “environmental restoration” in the name of palatability to people like me and my pals at Newtown Creek Alliance.

As mentioned, not a great year on the Newtown Creek.

All sides are offering carrots. I’m fashioning sticks, for use in 2017.


“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

never cease

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Out on the water with the Working Harbor Committee, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A recent Working Harbor Committee excursion was billed as presenting “Brooklyn waterfront, past and present” and I was on the microphone for a good stretch of the trip. I was sharing the narration duty with my pal, Capt. Margaret Flanagan of the Waterfont Alliance organization, who I told point blank before the trip started that once the boat got past Red Hook “I got nothing.” Not a problem for Capt. Flanagan at all, as her able narration and vast knowledge of all things NY Harbor allowed me to slip away from the proverbial pulpit and shoot a few photos.

One bad thing about being one of the tour leaders for these excursions is that it has really cut into the amount of time I have to shoot, and since I’m Working Harbor’s official photographer – this has created a shortage of photos.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A full harvest moon rose while we were out, and the shot above was captured while our vessel – a NY Waterways ferry – was plying the rippling surface of Gowanus Bay in South Brooklyn. As is often opined, the best times of year in NYC for photography are in the late spring and early fall, when the angle of the burning thermonuclear eye of God itself in relation to the City is quite efficacious. Obviously, these shots were captured at sunset and dusk.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One has a tremendous desire to just get out on a boat and shoot for hours and hours during these intervals, and record the glorious parade of maritime industrial splendor out on the sixth borough. I took the East River Ferry to Manhattan’s Pier 11 from LIC to meet the Working Harbor chartered vessel in the City, but since the ER Ferry service concludes its schedule in the early evening, one was forced to enter the sweating concrete bunkers of the Subway system to get back to almond eyed Astoria.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

At 59th street, one encountered this fellow, who seemed intent on blowing his own horn.

Upcoming tours and events:


“The Untold History of the Newtown Creek (aka Insalubrious Valley)” walking tour
with New York Adventure Club, Saturday, October 1st from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Click here for tickets.


“First Calvary Cemetery” walking tour
with Brooklyn Brainery, Saturday, October 8th from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Click here for tickets.


“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

inclement forecast

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A labor day tradition, postponed.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The 24th annual Great North River Tugboat Race and Competition has been postponed from September 4th to Sunday, October 9th, 2016 due to the likely appearance of Hurricane Hermine in NY Harbor on Sunday.

Click here for the Working Harbor Blog which will be your best source of information on the storm and the rescheduled Tug Race.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Written by Mitch Waxman

September 2, 2016 at 11:00 am

unequal heating

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Creek Week concludes, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

That’s the Kosciuszcko Bridge replacement project pictured above, with the 1939 Robert Moses model bridge providing a backdrop to the under construction cable stay model. That’s the Brooklyn side, for the curious. This is a $1.2 billion replacement effort, “fast tracked” by Governor Cuomo, which is intended to replace what’s considered to be the most dangerous bridge in New York State – which happens to carry hundreds of thousands of vehicle trips a day as the Brooklyn Queens Expressway runs across its 2.1 mile long structure (along with its approaches).

– photo by Mitch Waxman

These shots were captured while onboard a NY Water Taxi hired for the evening by the Open House NY organization, and my colleague T. Willis Elkins and I were onboard to represent Newtown Creek Alliance and narrate to two sold out crowds. The second trip was heading back out from the Newtown Creek towards the East River just as sunset was occurring, and as always – Newtown Creek was and is a visual spectacular.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One has been trying to capture as many angles and shots as possible of the old Kosciuszcko Bridge for a couple of years now, simply because within the next 24-36 months it will have been eradicated from common memory.

This whole “Newtown Creek Historian” business isn’t just about revealing the past, it’s about leaving behind a visual record for those who haven’t been born yet about what the place looked like during its superfund and early 21st century transformational period.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I’ve mentioned it before, but the plan which the State DOT has put forward is that once the eastern side of the new bridge is complete, they are going to reroute the BQE onto it. Then, they’re going to demolish the 1939 model, and in its footprint, build the western section of the new cable stay bridge. The great news about that is that there is going to be a pedestrian and bicycle path on the western side of the bridge.

One looks forward to walking the camera across, and getting aerial shots from up there.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The burning thermonuclear eye of God itself was setting in the west as our NY Water Taxi navigated back towards the East River. That’s Blissville in Queens on the right hand side of the shot above, and the former location of not just Charles Pratt’s “Queens County Oil Works” but just about the very spot where the first large scale oil refinery in the United States – Abraham Gesner’s “North American Kerosene Gas Light Company” was founded.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

On the Brooklyn or Greenpoint side of Newtown Creek, the former home of the Standard Oil Company of New York and birthplace of what would be one day known as Mobil Oil is closest to the camera, which are now the ExxonMobil Greenpoint Remediation Project properties at 400 Kingsland Avenue.

Sitting on part of the former oil company properties in Greenpoint is the NYC DEP’s Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, largest and newest of NYC’s 14 sewer plants.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

DUGABO – or Down Under the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge Onramp – is the heart of petroleum country on Newtown Creek. Greenpoint Avenue heads west into Brooklyn, terminating at the East River at Transmitter Park, whereas it continues into Queens and once having crossed Queens Blvd. – it transmogrifies into Roosevelt Avenue and continues all the way out into Flushing.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

From a maritime industrial point of view, the DUGABO area surrounding the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge is probably one of the busiest sections of Newtown Creek in the 21st century. SimsMetal and Allocco Recycling host regular tug and barge traffic, as does Metro fuel.

In the distance is the Pualski Bridge and the towers of the Shining City of Manhattan.

Upcoming Events and Tours

Saturday, August 6th, 2:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. –
Insalubrious Valley Walking Tour,
with NY Adventure Club. Click here for more details.

Sunday, August 14th, 11:00 p.m. – 1:00 p.m. –
Calvary Cemetery Walking Tour,
with Atlas Obscura. Click here for more details.

Sunday, August 21, 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. –
Poison Cauldron Walking Tour,
with Atlas Obscura. Click here for more details.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

frantic note

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By gum, it’s Creek Week.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Last week, one found himself at a relatively early hour over in Greenpoint at the Newtown Creek Waste Water Treatment Plant’s Nature Walk. I was there to meet the Waterfront Alliance board people, and speak about both the history of Newtown Creek and the things which the Newtown Creek Alliance is working on in pursuance of our goal to “reveal, restore, and revitalize” Newtown Creek.

All that notwithstanding, as is my habit, I was early and luckily enough the Vane Towing Tug Hunting Creek was transiting under the Pulaski Bridge. That gave me something to do while I was waiting.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One has always been a bit fidgety, a childhood habit which has never been abandoned. It’s difficult for me to “sit still” which sort of precludes me from photographing birds – which requires you to emulate stalking and hunting. Fifteen minutes with nothing to do is an interminable interval. It drives everybody who knows me crazy.

Hunting Creek was towing a fuel barge, which I later discovered, to the bulkheads of Metro Fuel in Greenpoint.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Vane Bros.’s Hunting Creek tug is a common sight for me. I first mentioned her back in 2013, and a few different views of it making the same transit on Newtown Creek were offered in 2014.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I say it all the time – 60% of everything in life is about “showing up,” and getting there a bit early. The good news is that shortly after the Hunting Creek disappeared out of view, one entered into the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment plant and before the meeting started – the NYC DEP folks invited the Waterfront Alliance group on tour of the facility. That’s where the other 40% of everything happens – lucky circumstance.

More on that tomorrow – at this, your Newtown Pentacle.

Upcoming Events and Tours

Wednesday, August 3rd, 6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. –
Glittering Realms Walking Tour,
with NYC H2O. Click here for more details.

Saturday, August 6th, 2:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. –
Insalubrious Valley Walking Tour,
with NY Adventure Club. Click here for more details.

Sunday, August 14th, 11:00 p.m. – 1:00 p.m. –
Calvary Cemetery Walking Tour,
with Atlas Obscura. Click here for more details.

Sunday, August 21, 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. –
Poison Cauldron Walking Tour,
with Atlas Obscura. Click here for more details.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

bright stone

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Tugboat action on part of America’s Maritime Superhighway, Newtown Creek, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Chickity check yo ass, if you think that new school Newtown Creek is a punk in New York Harbor. Obama and his crew down in D.C. call the Creek a “SMIA” or “Significant Maritime Infrastructure Area.” Dope tugboats can be seen rolling through here all the time.

That’s the Dann Towing company’s Ruby M slipping by and flying its colors.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Awesome, Ruby M is a 48 year old crusher, bro. She’s a hundred feet long with a beam of 28 feet, and Dann’s Ruby M only needs 12 feet of draft to fire up those 1,750 HP twin steel screws. She was crunching a fuel barge down the Creek, but needed the bitchin’ Pulaski Bridge to pop open before she could thrash through to the east.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Woe to you, oh earth and sea, if you don’t acknowledge the inherent wonders of Newtown Creek. Above, the latest entrant in the Creek’s pageant of wonders enters the frame as the tug Helen Laraway plies its gelatinous waters. A twin screw, steel hulled push boat, Helen Laraway was built in 1957 and can muster up 2,000 HP to power its twin screws.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Newtown Creek once hosted the most valuable maritime industrial bulkheads on the entire Earth. The unfortunate truth of the modern age is that only a small percentage of the owners of the waterfront properties hereabouts use their bulkheads. A single barge carries the equivalent cargo of 38 heavy trucks.

Upcoming Events and Tours

Sunday, August 21, 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. –
Poison Cauldron Walking Tour,
with Atlas Obscura. Click here for more details.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Written by Mitch Waxman

July 28, 2016 at 11:00 am

following day

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puzzling things, general weirdness, and an update on that transformer fire in Astoria.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Out on the water in NY Harbor recently, the scene above was observed.

Famously, one of those “harbor advocacy” statements which one is oft heard announcing on my walking and boat tours is that “maritime is the greenest way to transport cargo, with a single barge carrying the equivalent of thirty eight trucks worth of stuff,” but you seldom see it literally expressed by a barge carrying an actual truck. My rhetorical statement is actually built around a full sized flat top barge carrying cargo containers and guided by harbor sized tugboat type of scenario, rather than a smallish work barge that’s carrying a dump truck and being towed by a little push boat.

The push boat is the TJ Miller, btw, which operates of Staten Island’s Millers Landing.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Passing by the Fuller Brush, or Flatiron building if you must, recently – I couldn’t get the whole 23 Skidoo stuff to exit my brain. I went to college a few blocks away at the School of Visual Arts, and Manhattan’s 23rd street was – and remains – one of the main thoroughfares of my life. Post college, most of the advertising agencies which I worked for were located somewhere within a few blocks of the Flatiron for some reason. I seldom photograph along its route, however, as the School of Visual Arts is – as mentioned – just down the block. They have a world class photography program there, and the 23rd street corridor is probably one of the most “captured” spots on the planet. While I was at SVA, I was in the illustration program, so unfortunately I haven’t got much in the way of documentation of the 1980’s version of it as I was drawing comics and painting and stuff back then.

It makes me wonder, however. Taking the Flatiron as an example, which is one of the most photographed buildings in NYC, and has been for a century… one ponders what information about our environment could be gleaned from assembling the decades long recordings of its appearance. Weather patterns, erosion, particulate levels in the air?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Back in Astoria, after that transformer explosion I described to you a couple of weeks ago, it took the Con Ed guys about three days – working 24 hours, mind you – to put things back in order. There’s still crews working around two to three blocks north and to south, as presumptively wherever the wires connected to that failed equipment led to must have been also been damaged or affected by the event. That’s my guess anyway.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It took the Con Ed crews just under a day to get the blacked out block of 44th street between 34 avenue and Broadway back on the grid, but that’s when their real job began. I don’t know too much about their operation, but I can describe how it played out. First there were emergency crews who arrived in red trucks who “put out the fire.” They were followed by a far larger contingent of blue truck crews who arrived with a variety of equipment and what seemed like a third party contractor. As the project went on, the cable trucks arrived, one of which is in the shots above.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The (seemingly) third party contractor got busy digging up a pretty sizable trench leading from the transformer and following the curbline. The blue truck guys were moving in and out the manholes and had a substantial amount of equipment deployed. They were all working during the sweltering July heat, incidentally.

About three days after the transformer fire, they all suddenly left.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Just another blackout in Astoria, Queens, I guess.

Upcoming Events and Tours

Tuesday, July 26, 6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. –
Glittering Realms Walking tour,
with NYC H2O. Click here for more details.

Wednesday, July 27, 1st trip – 4:50 p.m. 2nd trip – 6:50 p.m. –
2 Newtown Creek Boat Tours,
with Open House NY. Click here for more details.

Saturday, July 30, 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. –
DUPBO Walking Tour,
with Atlas Obscura. Click here for more details.

Sunday, August 21, 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. –
Poison Cauldron Walking Tour,
with Atlas Obscura. Click here for more details.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Written by Mitch Waxman

July 25, 2016 at 11:00 am

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