The Newtown Pentacle

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Archive for the ‘Environmental Protection Agency’ Category

odd purchases

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It’s National Martini Day, in these United States.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One of the things that we, as in the environmental and activist community along Newtown Creek, have been asking officialdom about for years is about why there is zero signage advising the citizenry about not fishing or crabbing in the Newtown Creek. I know this might strike you as odd, but folks actually do fish and crab hereabouts. Observationally, these are people who were born overseas, so the signage issue becomes a bit complicated given the legendary “diversity” of Western Queens and North Brooklyn. The Albany people have always questioned as to why you’d need signage, as it’s illegal to fish without a license, and every NYS licensee has been advised about the environmental conditions encountered on the inland waterways of NYC – which is one of the most “Albany people” things I’ve ever heard.

Luckily, the Feds at EPA realized what we’ve been asking for is necessary and have begun the process of creating advisory signage, and the PRP (Potentially Resonsible Parties) consortium which styles itself as the “Newtown Creek Group” volunteered to manufacture the placards, which EPA would in turn design and install. The signage is pretty close to its final design iteration, and the latest version looks like this. As to where the signs should be placed? Who has carefully documented every little pocket and corner of the streets surrounding the Creek? Who can tell you where people commonly fish? That’s a Newtown Creek Alliance job, anyone can tell you that.

Let’s face it, who ya gonna call?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Accordingly, one found himself in Greenpoint recently at nine in the morning as the EPA team assembled. Civilians cannot ride in Government vehicles (which is an odd rule, as we technically own them) so the third party contractor who will do the actual installation of the things did the driving. We hit every little corner of the Newtown Creek where people can find access to the water, even the hidden spots where the “utes” of Greenpernt like to experiment with cannibinoids.

It was actually quite a beautiful morning, and the light was fantastic, so while the Feds got busy with the tape measures and GPS’d the various locations we visited, I waved the camera around a bit.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

We did encounter an “enforcement situation” in Brooklyn alongside the Metropolitan Avenue Bridge. There’s a protocol for “who’s responsible for what” along the Newtown Creek. Short version is this – EPA is in charge of Superfund, which is specifically related to the sediments under the water. New or ongoing pollution entering the water is the provence of the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation.

The NYC DEP is responsible for absolutely nothing anywhere or anytime, it’s not their fault at all, and they have no idea why they were named as a PRP in the first place as it’s all Exxon or National Grid’s fault.

The fellow from EPA I was on the bridge with confirmed my belief that “I should call this in” and the NYS DEC Spill Response hotline was called. If you spot oil slicks, plumes of floatable contaminants, or as in the case of the shot above – hundreds of gallons of milky white mystery juice exiting one of DEP’s open sewers – the protocol is to first photograph it, as documentation, and then to call 1 (800) 457-7362 to let DEC know about the situation so they can investigate.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

We were, as mentioned above, visiting every conceivable spot that the citizenry could find their way to the water.

That included “off limits” locations like the Montrose Avenue Rail Bridge over the English Kills tributary. As you can see from all the interesting graffiti on the bridge, which carries lead tracks of the Bushwick Branch LIRR, trespassing is pretty common back here. This is the reason that EPA asked Newtown Creek Alliance to send somebody along with them, as there’s the “official story” and a “real story” found along the water.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

This family of Canada Geese were encountered at the Maspeth Avenue Plank Road, and were being predated by a feral cat who was anxious for breakfast. Momma and Poppa Goose were just out of frame to the left, so the cat made a brilliant decision and continued on into the brush to look for some easier prey. We encountered a couple of broods of Geese over the course of the morning. Geese can be ornery, as a note, and will smack you up if they’re annoyed.

One of these illegal alien avian bullies, at Maspeth Creek, actually hissed at us as we neared, and stuck its tongue out at me.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The reasoning behind the signage is based around science rather than good humored politics, incidentally. When you’re chatting with environmental officials, they don’t refer to oysters or mussels as shellfish, rather they call them “bioaccumulators.” Animals that are high up in the food chain have internal organs – livers in particular – and muscular tissues which have amassed dangerous levels of whatever pollutant is found in the sediments of the waterway, which they’ve attained by consuming all the prey critters who are below them in the food chain hierarchy. In the case of crabs, in particular, you can encounter a fantastic amount of chemical concentrates due to their particular niche and occupations.

Newtown Creek is – of course – a Federal Superfund site. The sediment beds hereabout are a goulash of petroleum and petroleum byproducts, organocopper compounds, volatile organic compounds, PCB’s, coal tar, sewage, and everything else that has ever been dumped or spilled into the water. The sediment is referred to as “black mayonnaise” and it’s where the crabs live. It’s also where most of the invertebrates that form the bottom of the food chain for the fish population live. Itty bitty critters eat the decaying organics of the black mayonnaise, and slightly less itty bitty critters eat handfuls of the little guys, and the larger critters eat hundreds of them – you get the idea.

You don’t want to eat fish or crabs that you catch in the Newtown Creek. Really.

Upcoming Tours and events

Newtown Creek, Greenpoint to Hunters Point, walking tour with NYCH2O – June 29th, 7-9 p.m..

Experience and learn the history of the western side of Newtown Creek, as well as the East River Parks Hunters Point with NCA Historian Mitch Waxman details here.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

modern matters

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It’s Street Children’s Day, in the Republic of Austria.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Dutch Kills, a tributary of Newtown Creek which abruptly turns north off the main channel three quarters of a mile east of the East River, is entirely contained within Long Island City. It’s crossed by five bridges – the LIRR bridges DB Cabin and Cabin M, the Borden Avenue Bridge, the Queens Midtown Expressway truss, and the Hunters Point Avenue Bridge. Dutch Kills, like all of Newtown Creek’s tributaries and the main channel itself, is lined with a toxic sediment referred to as “Black Mayonnaise.” This sediment is composed of coal tar, petroleum and refining byproducts, industrial waste of various provence and typology, as well as human excrement deposited by NYC’s open sewers.

At its northern terminus, Dutch Kills is across the street from a CUNY college and several charter schools serving high school and junior high school aged kids. One of the most significant build outs in recent real estate history is happening less than a quarter mile from that spot, along LIC’s Jackson Avenue in an area referred to as “Court Square.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Due to a non functioning railroad swing bridge at Dutch Kill’s junction with Newtown Creek’s main channel, there is absolutely zero maritime industrial activity along the tributary. The bulkheads along its reach generally date back about a century, to a massive “improvement” conducted around the time of the First World War which saw the marshes and swamps it fed drained and both the Sunnyside Yards and the Degnon Industrial Terminal constructed.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The streets surrounding Dutch Kills offer fleeting glimpses of the waterway, and many of them are not City streets at all but “railroad access roads” owned by the MTA. You can almost always smell the waterway before you can see it, and whereas I can tell you a few spots to access the water, none of these are “legal” and all involve trespass of private or government property. You can legally observe it from the Borden Avenue or Hunters Point Avenue bridges, however.

At it’s terminus – or “turning basin,” there are two abandoned oil barges rusting and rotting away into the water.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Illegal dumping, the native art form of the Borough of Queens, is practiced hereabouts with relish and abandon. The DSNY garbage bin in the shot above appeared on 29th street back in November, and I’ve been watching it steadily fill up and overflow. DSNY doesn’t seem to remember where they put it, as I haven’t seen it empty since the day it arrived.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Amidst the sheens of oil and grease you’ll observe on Dutch Kills, which are both historic and newly spawned, there are what the NYC DEP would describe as “floatables.” That’s government code for garbage that’s either been flushed or has been swept into the sewer grates on every street corner in NYC. In the case of Dutch Kills, the “sewer shed” that feeds these floatables into it extends all the way to East Elmhurst and Woodside to the east, Sunnyside and Astoria to the north, and the rapidly growing Long Island City which Dutch Kills is a part of.

The sewer plant that handles this burgeoning area was opened in 1931, and Fiorello LaGuardia cut the ribbon to open it.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

There is going to be a meeting tomorrow, the latest of many, of the Newtown Creek Community Advisory Group (CAG) on the first of February. If the shot above looks good to you, and you’d like to see more of the same – don’t come. If you care about not having a billion and a half gallons of raw sewage a year spilling onto mounds of poisonous and century old industrial waste, do come. Pipe up, we need voices and perspectives from outside the echo chamber.

Details on the meeting – time, place, etc. – can be accessed at this link. We could really use some Queensican bodies and voices in the room.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As evinced by the corpse pictured above, life has actually begun to recolonize this waterway in recent years. The presence of higher mammals hereabouts speaks to an ecosystem that is beginning to recover from centuries of industrial and municipal abuse. Of course, nothing is going to save a raccoon from getting ground into hamburger by the wheels of a semi truck.

At Newtown Creek Alliance, we’ve been cataloging and observing for a while now. There’s more than seventy individual species of birds for instance – including Great Blue Herons and Ospreys – living along the lugubrious Newtown Creek. Their presence speaks to a growing population of prey animals (fish) present in the water column, and to a broader environmental recovery happening along this industrial waterway at the literal center of NYC.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Hidden Harbor Tours: Newtown Creek tour with Mitch Waxman

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“follow” me on Twitter at @newtownpentacle

– photo by Mitch Waxman

On Sunday -the 26th of May- the Working Harbor Committee is producing and offering a boat tour of the Newtown Creek for any interested parties to attend. A special emphasis on the waterway’s storied history and maritime legacy will be made.

I’m going to be doing the history part, speaking in my capacity as the Newtown Creek Alliance Historian, and am tasked with highlighting the various points of interest encountered along the route. Anticipated to be some three hours in length, this boat tour will be delving some three miles inland, proceeding to the Metropolitan Avenue Bridge crossing English Kills in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Maritime History of Newtown Creek is one largely forgotten in these decadent times, but even now an odd tugboat and barge might be spied making their way down the waterway on any given day. Property owners were considered to have been blessed by some of the finest industrial bulkheads in the world a mere century ago, yet many of the businesses based along the Creek today ignore this invaluable resource, allowing their waterfront property to decay and decline.

Nevertheless, a staggering amount of maritime traffic is still observed here, and towing companies such as Reinauer, K-Sea, DonJon, and Poling and Cutler are regular visitors.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Vast operations will be witnessed by those onboard, many of which are involved in the scrap metal and recyclables trade. Responsible for an enormous amount of cross harbor shipping, companies such as SimsMetal are heavily reliant on the maritime trades for their economic success.

Not all that long ago, Newtown Creek carried a greater tonnage of cargo than the entire Mississippi River.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

An active and thriving industrial zone in the center of New York City, from the water one can truly grasp the sheer scale of Newtown Creek’s busy waterfront. Normally hidden by high fences and obscured by street facing structures, the intensity of the Newtown Creek is laid bare before the admiring gaze of first time visitor and veteran urban explorer alike.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A tributary of the estuarine East River, Newtown Creek extends some 3.8 miles from its junction with the more familiar waterway, and provides demarcation for the currently undefended border of much of Brooklyn and Queens. Named to the Federal Superfund list, the Creek suffers from a history of environmental degradation and municipal neglect.

An era of great change is upon the Newtown Creek, and this trip will be one of your last chances to see it in its current form.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

We will see four moveable bridges, and this year will be your last chance to see the static Kosciuszko Bridge as the NYS DOT has indicated that construction on its replacement will begin as early as the Fall of 2013.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Along it’s banks, great fortunes have risen.

Amongst others- Peter Cooper (BO Railroad, Canton Iron, and Cooper Union), Charles Pratt (Astral Oil, and Pratt University), and ultimately John D. Rockefeller (Standard Oil)– all grew richer than the dreams of avarice in this place. Alongside them, the darkest mills of the industrial revolution- rendering plants, yeast distilleries, bone blackers, and acid factories provided tens of thousands of jobs to the immigrant populations of Brooklyn and Queens. Today- National Grid, BP, Amoco, ExxonMobil, and a host of other multinational companies still maintain an enormous investment in this valuable industrial canal.

Upcoming tour: Hidden Harbor Tours: Newtown Creek tour with Mitch Waxman.

On May 26th, Mitch shares his unique point of view and deep understanding of the past, present and future conditions of the Newtown Creek as the narrator and expedition leader for this years’ Hidden Harbor Tours: Newtown Creek tour with Mitch Waxman.

Our NY Water Taxi leaves from South Street Seaport at 10 a.m. (sharp) for a three hour tour of the Newtown Creek. From the East River we’ll move into the Newtown Creek where we’ll explore explore vast amounts of maritime infrastructure, see many movable bridges and discover the very heart of the Hidden Harbor.

Limited seating available, get your tickets today.

Tickets $59, trip leaves Pier 17 at South Street Seaport at 10a.m. sharp.

We will be traveling in a comfortable NY Water Taxi vessel with indoor and outdoor seating. There will be refreshments and snacks available for purchase at the bar.

Other upcoming tours:

Parks and Petroleum- Sunday, May 12, 2013
Newtown Creek walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Newtown Creek Alliance, tickets now on sale.

The Insalubrious Valley– Saturday, May 25, 2013
Newtown Creek walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Atlas Obscura, tickets now on sale.

for a full listing and schedule of tours and events, click here

growing ferocity

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

As your humble narrator scuttles in palsied manner across the concrete devastations of the Newtown Creek watershed, observations have revealed that a sizable number of Federal employees are now employed and extant upon the water. Early phases of the process which these EPA contractors and supervisory staff are carrying out, they seek an answer to the burning question long offered at this- your Newtown Pentacle, “Who can guess, all there is, that might be buried down there?”.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Ignorant, and vulnerable to the pernicious rumormongering of area wags, your humble narrator has been attending and has in fact joined the “Newtown Creek CAG” in order to receive reports and breaking news about the progress of these Federal teams sent by the Environmental Protection Agency to examine the morass, stare into the abyss, and perform the field measurements of conditions upon and indeed within the Newtown Creek.

The CAG is intended to serve as a point of interaction between the agency and present community concerns, reactions, and requests or complaints arising from the community to the agency. Additionally, it will attempt to distribute and disseminate information which the EPA desires the public to know and or consider.

To that end, the EPA has made available these two documents:

US EPA’s presentation at the May 21 CAG meeting.

US EPA technical assistance in a nutshell, with details about Technical Assistance Grants (TAG) and the Technical Assistance Services for Communities (TASC) program.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Discussion at recent meetings have discussed the concerns of area businesses who have been experiencing difficulty with bank financing, queries about the methodology of epidemiological and health studies to be conducted in surrounding stakeholder communities, and a timeline was presented for the various phases of their mission. A series of laboratory tests, performed upon samples gathered from literally thousands of individual “sites”, are underway.

All summer, you will see these little workboats on the Creek, whose crews will be collecting, sampling, and recording data about the Newtown Creek.


June 16th, 2012- Newtown Creek Alliance Dutch Kills walk

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Newtown Creek Alliance has asked that, in my official capacity as group historian, a tour be conducted on the 16th of June- a Saturday. This walk will follow the Dutch Kills tributary, and will include a couple of guest speakers from the Alliance itself, which will provide welcome relief for tour goers from listening to me rattle on about Michael Degnon, Patrick “Battle Ax” Gleason, and a bunch of bridges that no one has ever heard of.

for June 16th tickets, click here for the Newtown Creek Alliance ticketing page

June 23rd, 2012- Atlas Obscura Thirteen Steps around Dutch Kills walk

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Additionally- the “Obscura Day” Thirteen Steps around Dutch Kills tour proved that the efficacy and charms of the Newtown Creek’s least known tributary, with its myriad points of interest, could cause a large group to overlook my various inadequacies and failings. The folks at Atlas Obscura, which is a fantastic website worthy of your attentions (btw), have asked me to repeat the tour on the 23rd of June- also a Saturday.

for June 23rd tickets, click here for the Atlas Obscura ticketing page

June 30th, 2012- Working Harbor Committee Kill Van Kull walk

– photo by Mitch Waxman

My various interests out on the sixth borough, NY Harbor, have brought me into association with the Working Harbor Committee. A member of the group’s Steering Committee- I also serve as the “official” group photographer, am chairman and principal narrator of their annual Newtown Creek Boat Tour, and occasionally speak on the microphone during other tours (mainly the Brooklyn one). This year, the group has branched out into terrestrial explorations to compliment the intense and extant schedule of boat tours, and I’m going to be leading a Kill Van Kull walking tour that should be a lot of fun.

The Kill Van Kull, or tugboat alley as its known to we harbor rats, is a tidal strait that defines the border of Staten Island and New Jersey. A busy and highly industrialized waterfront, Working Harbor’s popular “Hidden Harbor – Newark Bay” boat tours provide water access to the Kill, but what is it like on the landward side?

Starting at the St. George Staten Island Ferry terminal, join WHC Steering Committee member Mitch Waxman for a walk up the Kill Van Kull via Staten Islands Richmond Terrace. You’ll encounter unrivaled views of the maritime traffic on the Kill itself, as well as the hidden past of the maritime communities which line it’s shores. Surprising and historic neighborhoods, an abandoned railway, and tales of prohibition era bootleggers await.

The tour will start at 11, sharp, and you must be on (at least) the 10:30 AM Staten Island Ferry to meet the group at St. George. Again, plan for transportation changes and unexpected weirdness to be revealed to you at

For June 30th tickets, click here for the Working Harbor Committee ticketing page

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