The Newtown Pentacle

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Posts Tagged ‘Oil Spill

warm and fragrant

with one comment

– photo by Mitch Waxman

An appointment in Greenpoint carried me across the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge last Tuesday, and as my habit is to be early to meetings, some time was available for photography. It was an unusual and foggy day, and the mists were creating an enormous depth of field atmospherically. Always a visual pleasure, the GPA bridge offers views of the former Tidewater pumping station on the Queens bank as well as the tank farms of Lukoil and Metro fuel on the Brooklyn bank- which are pictured above.

That’s when I noticed something disturbing.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

We are lucky that we live in the age we do, when an oil slick moving down the languorous Newtown Creek is a remarkable sight. Once upon a time, such visualizations were commonly extant and regularly observed. Luckily, due to regulation and improved industrial practices, such events happen far less frequently than they once did.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The standard protocol to follow when you observe an oil slick on the Newtown Creek, or anywhere in New York Harbor, is to first document it by taking a picture using your cell phone or digital camera. Make a note of your location and the time. Next, call 311 to alert city authorities, followed by a call to the State DEC spill hotline- 1 (800) 457-7362.

They take these matters quite seriously.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Take note of whether the tide is coming in or going out, as this will help authorities to pinpoint the source of the contaminants. On this day, the tide was ebbing and the oil slick was flowing toward the East River along the tepid current. It should be mentioned that the obvious petroleum industry presence found alongside the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge is maintained by fairly responsible parties in modernity, and the shot above is not meant to indite or should be viewed as indicative of being responsible for the event depicted in this post.

The slick was coming from the other direction, flowing east to west and traveling beneath the bridge toward them.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Later that afternoon, after having accomplished my intended goals in Greenpoint, and returning home via the Pulaski Bridge to Queens- a new feature on the lower Creek was noticed. A temporary or floating dock installed nearby the Vernon Avenue Street End, and one of two “work boats” was traveling eastward from it and moving under the Pulaski.

It moved too fast for me to ready the camera, but it bore the screed “spill response boat” upon it.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Everybody’s friends at Riverkeeper, whom I informed of my observations upon returning home, made inquiries with DEC officials about the nature and extent of this possible spill event. DEC sent back word that the slick was no spill, rather it was likely a result of sediment sampling efforts being carried out by the Federal EPA as part of the ongoing discovery phase of the Superfund process. It seems that while dredging up small quantities of the so called “Black Mayonnaise” which lines the bed of the creek for study, some effluent might have been released into the waterway.

arduous detail

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

On Friday the 13th of January, your humble narrator was drawn inextricably to the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant’s Nature Walk. A friend, who is a faculty member of a CUNY institution familiar to all residents of Queens, had reported that she (and her students) had witnessed an extant slick of petroleum product while at the location.

So, despite inclement weather and biting cold, your humble narrator crossed the Pulaski from Queens to infinite Brooklyn to investigate.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Just to be clear, the NCWWTP (oft referred to as the Temple of Cloacina) has nothing to do with petroleum. The mission of this futurist facility deals with a sticky black substance of entirely manmade origin, its collection and eventual disposition, but definitively not petroleum.

The Nature Walk, which is the subject of ironic humor and contextual mirth for many, is a lovely amenity required by the City’s “1% for art” rules. Designed by architect George Trakas, the NCWWTP Nature Walk offers panoramic views and public access to the nation’s most polluted waterway, and provides an island of calm for a section of Greenpoint sorely lacking in open space.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

My friend, as mentioned, serves as a faculty member at the CUNY institution in Queens. For several years, she has been conducted a census and study of the micro organisms which find themselves swept into Newtown Creek on the shallow tide offered by the estuarine East River. Her findings are surprising, as observation and scientific method has revealed that a startling diversity of life somehow finds a way to organize and sustain their existence in the troubled waterway.

Pictured above are the “steps” at the Nature Walk during happier times.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Witnessed on this day in January were the tell tale leave behinds of the event, painted upon the self same steps illustrated in the shot above. Eyewitness description and anecdotal memories described the slick as both viscous and opaque, and occupying no small acreage of water.

Reports of floating “tar balls” accompany the tale of the slick, which was described as moving eastward- up the creek- with the rising tide from the East River.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As a note, the tidal action of the surrounding waters doesn’t really flow into the Newtown Creek so much as it forces the waterway to rise and fall in a vertical rather than lateral manner. This why the sedimentary process along the Creek is so onerous, as there is no “flushing action”.

Once something enters the Newtown Creek, it never leaves.

An Oil spill… in Queens

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– photo by Mitch Waxman (February 16, 2009) 

Sadly, oil is seeping out of a bulkhead on the Queens side of the Newtown Creek.

Famously, the Greenpoint Oil Spill (click here for a link to for more) occurred just across the water from this spot, but every indication points to this as being a separate event. The former site of Charles Pratt’s Queens County Oil Works, which was an approximately 18 acre parcel which would later be called the “Standard Oil Blissville works”, the sites occupation in modernity has little or nothing to do with petroleum.

Welcome, by the way, to Newtown Creek- and to the “Blissville Oil Spill”.

Just a note: For the purposes of this posting, I’m departing from the normal formatting, and the photos are presented along with the dates upon which they were captured.

– photo by Mitch Waxman (September 14, 2008)

My practice for the last several years has been to shoot everything I see along the Newtown Creek, whether or not it seems significant at the time. This practice evolved out of the paucity of photographic documentation of the place which survived the 20th century, and the effort has been made with the notion of leaving behind something for future researchers to work with. As time has gone by, and my technological capabilities have expanded, I’ve developed quite a library of shots.

The photo above depicts the site in question during the autumn of 2008, and shows the historic condition of the bulkheads.

– photo by Mitch Waxman (September 14, 2008)

A standard codex for interpreting what one sees along the Newtown Creek states that wooden bulkheads are 19th century, reinforced concrete dates from the early to mid 20th, and steel plating is late 20th and early 21st century. This rule is not “scientific” but allows one to approximate the manufacture of these fallen docks to a relative time period. As you can observe in the shot above, the risible decay of the wooden bulkheads, and their manner of construction, speak to a long period of disuse and lack of maintenance as far as September of 2008.

– photo by Mitch Waxman (February 20, 2010)

In the winter of 2010, a crew began to install modern steel plating along this frontage, which drew my interest. Again, anything that is in a state of flux along the waterway is a point of interest for me. This project went on for several months, and was conducted from a barge with a small crane installed on it.

– photo by Mitch Waxman (February 4, 2011)

By the same period a year later, in February of 2011, the modern installation was complete. Conflicting reports on this style of bulkhead are often heard. The older wooden structures offer a structure for biological organisms to nest and shelter, but “slow” the already tepid flow of water through the narrow passages of the Creek. The steel ones “quicken” the flow, but offer no toeholds for organic life.

Modern day, (December 2011) google maps screen capture, click here or the image above for the dynamic google map. This is an industrial cul de sac today, accessed by a private driveway. The companies which use this space are largely waste management oriented, warehouse operations, furniture refinishing, or other truck based businesses. Despite the presence of freight tracks through the middle of the site, few of these companies utilize their sidings. Calvary Cemetery and the Kosciuszko Bridge loom large and distinguish the area.

1924 view of the area, screen capture from “NYCityMap” at

The oil tanks in the center of the site betray the presence of the “Queens County Oil Works” of Charles Pratt, which were also known as the “Standard Oil Blissville Works”. Blissville, of course, is the historic name of this part of Queens which was once a residential area.

Clear plans of the area in 1936 overlaid with the 1924 aerial projection from NYCityMap. Click here to see a large version of the overlay.

Detail view of the area, click here for larger incarnation. The works were here as late as 1951, but at this point, I still haven’t been able to confirm the date they were closed down.

– photo by Mitch Waxman (August 6, 2011)

In the summer of 2011, I was tasked with photographing a “Bulkhead Survey” which members of the Newtown Creek Alliance were conducting. The good folks at Riverkeeper volunteered to take our party out on the Newtown Creek onboard their patrol boat, and when we were passing by the former Queens County Oil Works, we noticed the presence of both containment booms on the water and petroleum product flowing freely from the shoreline itself.

– photo by Mitch Waxman (August 6, 2011)

The theory which has been advanced by knowledgeable sources is that when the steel bulkheads were installed, a process in which the plating is slid down into place and then secured, and that a sealed chamber or buried pipeline was likely ruptured during the construction process which freed “the product”.

I have been asked to mention (by Newtown Creek Alliance and Riverkeeper itself) that investigation of the situation is underway, and the State and City officials responsible for policing this sort of thing are fully and enthusiastically engaged in the process.

– photo by Mitch Waxman (August 6, 2011)

The story of Charles Pratt, his “Astral Oil”, and their involvement with John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust will be discussed in a later posting on this subject, as the lengthy history would divert attention from this otherwise serious issue. Suffice to say that the Blissville works were some 18 acres in size, and suffered several “total loss” fires in the late 19th century.

Note that this is a distinct property (and event) from the adjacent State Superfund site which is referred to as the Quanta Resources site.

– photo by Mitch Waxman (November 19, 2011)

Again onboard a Riverkeeper patrol, this time in November of 2011, the overt visual presence and subtle aroma of petroleum was encountered. The black and yellow structure is what is known as a hard boom, and is designed to contain surface contamination and “floatables”. It extends to a few inches below the surface.

– photo by Mitch Waxman (November 19, 2011)

The steel plating at the site is painted with oil, undoubtedly splashed up by wave action during storms at high tide. The white objects which are saturated with petroleum products are absorbent booms, designed to wick up the free floating product.

– photo by Mitch Waxman (November 19, 2011)

The leaves in the shot above are literally stuck into the gluey residues of the oil. You can see the high tide mark left by the water on the cleaner bulkhead which is just beyond the hard boom. Perhaps this is the source of oil, which many have reported to me over the course of the last year, which has been witnessed as it floats toward the East River.

– photo by Mitch Waxman (November 19, 2011)

It is not news that there are environmental contaminants floating freely in this troubled waterway, nor is there any revelation to be found in the fact that petroleum products are commonly observed pooling and flowing about the Newtown Creek watershed.

What is news is that this is in Queens.

– photo by Mitch Waxman (August 6, 2011)

Much of the attention, and deservedly so because of the large and growing population of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, which Newtown Creek receives is all about Brooklyn. The north shore of the Creek in Queens is often left out of discussion (and from both remediation and environmental benefits funding)  because of its relatively tiny population and industrial character. One of the questions which this blog has asked since day one has been “Who can guess all there is, that might be buried down there?”.

In the case of the Blissville Oil spill, the question might as well be “How much there might be?”.

– photo by Mitch Waxman (November 19, 2011)

This is just the beginning of a new Newtown Creek story, the tale of the Blissville Oil Spill. I fear it will be the first of many such stories, as we move into the Superfund era.

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