The Newtown Pentacle

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Posts Tagged ‘Newtown Creek Alliance

hunched servitor

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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

pastures and meadows

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Back in the saddle again.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

On April 18th, a Saturday, I’ll be leading my first public Newtown Creek walk of 2015 for Newtown Creek Alliance. It’s all about celebrating Earth Day (which is actually the 20th) and we’ll be taking a short walk down a long creek. This is also a 100% free tour, and we’ll be meeting a few interesting people along the way.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Newtown Creek Alliance’s motto is “restore, reveal, revitalize” and my role in the group is designated by that second word – “reveal.” Recently, my tour partner Mai and I counted up all the folks who have come out with me to Newtown Creek over the last few years – whether by bus, van, boat, or on foot – and were staggered to realize that we’ve guided a bit more than two thousand people around the place.

Holy Moley, I guess we must be doing something right.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

This tour will start in LIC, visits a few spots along the East River, will proceed to DUPBO (Down Under the Pulaski Bridge Onramp) on both sides of my beloved Creek. We’re going to head over to the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant Nature Walk at the end of the thing. The only thing physically challenging, in the least, that you will encounter are several flights of steps on the Pulaski Bridge. Regardless, closed toe shoes are highly recommended.

Come with, on April 18th, 2015 for a free walking tour of Newtown Creek in LIC and Greenpoint with Newtown Creek Alliance? Click here for your free tix and registration.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

repellant yard

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Down by ye olde Maspeth Plank Road.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The folks at Newtown Creek Alliance have a project underway, one which will rehabilitate the street end adjoining the Maspeth Plank Road and provide the first intentional point of public access to the waterfront in Queens. My role in the project is to do a couple of walking tours and raise awareness of the effort, so I swung down on one of the work days to grab some shots. Pictured is the National Grid site in Brooklyn with the Manhattan skyline behind.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The fellows who were doing the actual work should receive some sort of medal for working in the muck and yuck found hereabouts. 58th road ends at Newtown Creek after a sharp fall off in elevation, and all the industrial debris and trash which rolls downhill ends up here. Normally, the plank road site is inaccessible due to muddy and or weed choked conditions. The NCA crew has already done a tremendous amount of cleanup and groundskeeping here, and they got the NYC DEP to come in and clear out a mud choked drainage sewer just last week.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Of course, the story with Newtown Creek always carries one back to sewage. Most of the industrial pollution in the Creek is historic in nature, and other than a few bad actors, most of the modern day businesses found along its banks at least try to follow the rules and be responsible to the environment. That is, of course, except for the City of Greater New York – which allows billions of gallons of untreated sewage to flow into it every year.

Today is Earth Day, by the way.

There are three public Newtown Creek walking tours coming up, one in Queens and one in Brooklyn and two that walk the currently undefended border of the two boroughs.

Poison Cauldron, with Atlas Obscura, on April 26th.
Click here for more info and ticketing.

DUPBO, with Newtown Creek Alliance and MAS Janeswalk, on May 3rd.
Click here for more info and ticketing.

Modern Corridor, with Brooklyn Brainery, on May 18th.
Click here for more info and ticketing.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

angry sky

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Want to see something cool?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I got to go to South Brother Island with the Audubon Society once, whereupon these three presented themselves. Baby Cormorants, soon after this shot was gathered, the one on the right vomited half a fish at me. Baby birds are bastards, but they are cool looking.

Nature wants to kill you, and one should never be seduced by its beauty. That’s nature’s game, and it’s why our ancestors paved over everything in retaliation, which brings me inexorably back to Newtown Creek.

There are three public Newtown Creek walking tours coming up, one in Queens and one in Brooklyn and one that walks the currently undefended border of the two boroughs. I have another iron in the fire, which I’ll tell you about later this week. As you’re reading this, I’m likely on a boat with the Working Harbor Committee’s Education program, showing off the harbor to a group of high school students.

Plank Road, with Newtown Creek Alliance, on April 19th. This one is free, click here to get on the list.

Poison Cauldron, with Atlas Obscura, on April 26th. Click here for more info and ticketing.

Modern Corridor, with Brooklyn Brainery, on May 18th. Click here for more info and ticketing.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

calmly gazing

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Wrapping up the 400 Kingsland Avenue posts.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As mentioned in earlier posts, Kate Zidar of Newtown Creek Alliance and Kevin Thompson of ExxonMobil created an opportunity for artist Jan Mun (pictured above) and her collaborator Jason Sinopoli to work on an installation at the 400 Kingsland Avenue ExxonMobil property in Greenpoint that would demonstrate the efficacy and possibilities of mycoremediation- the usage of oil eating mushrooms as a bioremediator on contaminated sites. The project took the form of earth work “fairy rings,” a play on European mythology, which would act as a platform for the fungus. I was there to photographically document the project, which played out over the summer of 2013.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The earthworks were arranged around defunct well heads, and hosted two specie of mushrooms. A growth medium of “inoculated” hay stuffed into burlap bags hosted one specie, while the other fungal family was installed directly into the soil. Jan Mun was building on the concepts and work of a fellow named Paul Stamets, who is a leading authority on the subject. The mushrooms took root, as it were, and by late August and early September, we began to see the literal fruit of Jan Mun’s efforts.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The mushrooms began to fruit, as they absorbed nutrients from the soil. Interestingly enough, the bags of fungus also began to host a colony of what the kids in my old neighborhood would have referred to as “curly bugs.” That’s the sort of critter which curls up into a ball when you poke them with a stick, which I believe those outside of Canarsie refer to as “Potato Bugs.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The fungi weren’t the only thing that grew here in the summer of 2013. The NCA and ExxonMobil folks began to form a working relationship and friendship, an organic and unplanned consequence of close contact. Your humble narrator, in particular, found a friend in the site manager of the property- Vito- who is also a bit of a history buff. He exhibited some of the artifacts which his crew had dug out of the ground over the years, leave behinds from the long tenancy which the Standard Oil Company of New York enjoyed at this location.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The vernal project concluded, for me at least, with Jan Mun presenting the work to the team of engineers who labor at the site during a “toolbox talk.” Some of these folks worked directly for ExxonMobil, others for the larger company’s subcontractor Roux. The workers here are the men and women who are directly laboring on the remediation and cleanup of the Greenpoint Oil Spill. We shared a meal with them, and then went out to Jan’s work area to discuss the project and the concept of using fungus organisms in the pursuit of our shared organizational goals- achieving a restored and revitalized Newtown Creek environment.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Jan Mun and Jason Sinopoli continue to care for and work on their garden, here at 400 Kingsland Avenue. My documentation of the project is over for now, and I have returned to my solitary wanderings through the concrete devastations. The darkest of the hillside thickets awaits, and I turn away from this brightly lit and illimitable corridor found along the insalubrious valley of the Newtown Creek.

Upcoming Tours

Saturday – October 19, 2013
The Insalubrious Valley of the Newtown Creek with Atlas Obscura- tickets on sale now.

Sunday- October 20th, 2013
The Poison Cauldron of the Newtown Creek with Brooklyn Brainery- tickets on sale now.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

different place

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More goings on at 400 Kingsland Avenue with Jan Mun.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

For one such as myself, the simple fact that I was occupying a spot on the property of ExxonMobil in Greenpoint during the summer of 2013 was a spectacular and unheralded surprise. As a member of an environmental and community advocacy group whose devotion to “reveal, revitalize, and restore” Newtown Creek is taken quite seriously, being the invited guest of the ExxonMobil corporation on the former SOCONY (Standard Oil Company of New York) property- which stands at the very center of the remediation efforts aimed at cleaning up the Greenpoint Oil Spill- was startling. I was thrilled, frankly.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As mentioned in earlier posts, this was the navel of the oil business on Newtown Creek, part of an economic machine which was once called Standard Oil. This is where an industrial revolution occurred, right on the spot where artist Jason Sinopoli was placing a burlap bag of sterilized hay and mushroom spores (as pictured above), was a gargantuan oil refinery complex which by 1911 had occupied some 50 acres of Greenpoint. So much of the history of North Brooklyn and Western Queens revolves around the energy industry, it was staggering to be on this spot which has always been forbidden to inspection.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

In 1882, lightning struck and the whole complex burned down.

In 1919, the rebuilt refinery operation completely burnt down a second time, and at the time this property stretched from Kingsland Avenue to Sutton, Norman to the Creek. Standard Oil was able to rebuild the entire operation in just 90 days that time. Between the two fires, Standard reported losses exceeding 140 million gallons of petroleum products- according to contemporaneous accounts published at the NY Times. Pictured above, for the curious, is what a bag of the mushroom spores which Jan Mun and Jason Sinopoli were working with looks like. This is the stuff which was combined with the inoculated hay mentioned in yesterday’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

While pondering the lucky fate which had carried me here (a destiny which had been engineered by NCA’s Kate Zidar and ExxonMobil’s Kevin Thompson), Jan Mun and Jason Sinopoli toiled away in the terrible heat and humidity suffered on our work days. It was pretty rough, I have to say, and all I was doing was standing around and taking pictures. Zero cover from the burning thermonuclear eye of god itself coupled with the sort of high humidity one would expect to encounter in a low lying spot next to a slow moving water body, and all the while clad in a mandated “safety” costuming of hard hat, vest, long sleeves and pants, steel toe boots, and rubberized gloves. My little dog Zuzu wouldn’t come near me, upon returning home, until after I had a shower.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

We were of course there to work, not muse about the Greenpoint Oil Spill, ponder the dichotomies inherent in the relationships between the oil industry and Newtown Creek, or worry about heat stroke. The hardship was made worth it, of course, when the mushrooms began to grow.

Upcoming Tours

Saturday – October 19, 2013
The Insalubrious Valley of the Newtown Creek with Atlas Obscura- tickets on sale now.

Sunday- October 20th, 2013
The Poison Cauldron of the Newtown Creek with Brooklyn Brainery- tickets on sale now.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

elysian realms

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Here’s what I did this summer.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

To begin, one must discuss the context of the 400 Kingsland Avenue site. Formerly the home of the Standard Oil Company of New York’s Locust Hill refinery, this is one of the primary operational sites wherein ExxonMobil and its subcontractor Roux work on remediating the Greenpoint Oil Spill. The primary occupation of the 400 Kingsland site (there are several locations around Greenpoint) involves the removal and control of “VOC’s” (volatile organic compounds) which would otherwise be outgassing from the soil. There is a small structure with a battery of activated carbon filters attached to it visible in the right hand side of the shot above. The site is in DUGABO, which is my abbreviation for “Down Under the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge Onramp“. It is across the street from the Miller Building, and was where one of the greatest conflagrations in Newtown Creek history occurred.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The refining of oil ceased on Newtown Creek by 1966, and today its all about distribution. The petroleum industry, in the form of Kerosene manufacture, was very much in place here just a few years after the civil war. Independent producers ruled the roost until the 1880’s and 90’s when John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil company arrived. By 1900, Standard had gobbled up all the competition. The Standard Oil Company of New York (SOCONY) was based here, and after the Federal Government broke up the national “Standard Oil Trust,” SOCONY continued on at this and other properties in Greenpoint. Through mergers and acquisitions, SOCONY eventually became known as Mobil oil. Mobil eventually merged with the former Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, which had come to be known as Exxon by the time of the merger. The composite corporation inherited the sins of its parents, and that’s how ExxonMobil ended up on the hook for the oil pollution which underlies Greenpoint and parts of Queens.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Pictured above is Jan Mun, an artist who proposed a project to both the Newtown Creek Alliance and to ExxonMobil wherein she would be investigating and demonstrating the usage and viability of mycoremediation (hydrocarbon eating mushrooms) in the Newtown Creek watershed. Jan consistently reminded everyone that this is an art project, an installation, and not a scientific experiment- which bears repeating. She proposed the project to NCA’s Kate Zidar, who then approached ExxonMobil for permission, and the company agreed to allow us on site and participate in it financially. All participants would need to attend a perfunctory safety class which instructed and informed all in the mores and methods of their safety culture. After ExxonMobil agreed, enthusiastically I would add, Kate asked a humble narrator if he would be interested in documenting the project for NCA.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Every Tuesday during the summer of 2013, nearly, a group of us would head over to the ExxonMobil property and get suited up in safety gear- glasses, gloves, steel toe boots, hard hats, and vests. The mushroom spores came from a supplier in California, Paul Stamets, and Jan had an aesthetically pleasing plan to install the mushrooms in the form of “fairy rings” around the former well heads which once fed oil into those oil tanks which would be very familiar to longtime residents of Greenpoint.

In subsequent postings this week, the production of the fairy rings and the fruit they bore will be discussed.

Upcoming Tours

Saturday – October 19, 2013
The Insalubrious Valley of the Newtown Creek with Atlas Obscura- tickets on sale now.

Sunday- October 20th, 2013
The Poison Cauldron of the Newtown Creek with Brooklyn Brainery- tickets on sale now.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

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