The oil refineries along Newtown Creek in Greenpoint have been closed for decades, but after more than a century of industrial activity along Brooklyn’s northern edge, a thick layer of toxic “black mayonnaise” 15 feet deep sits at the bottom of the waterway. The Environmental Protection Agency finally designated the creek a Superfund site in 2010, an effort that joined a state-run project begun in 1979 to clean up the massive Greenpoint oil spill, an underground pool of some 30 million gallons of petroleum that built up over 140 years — an amount three times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill. Cleaning up that mess led to the discovery of yet another major environmental disaster.
In 2007, inspectors from New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation were doing routine monitoring of one of the oil plumes that runs under the neighborhood when they realized there was more than just oil in the groundwater and soil at one site — there were chlorinated volatile organic chemicals too. The CVOCs they found that day led to the discovery of a massive underground store of old dry-cleaning and metal-degreasing chemicals, all carcinogens the DEC had traced to local businesses such as cleaners, steel-drum companies, and lacquer manufacturers that were illegally dumping them. After further investigation, the DEC identified the affected 50-block zone east of Monsignor McGolrick Park, an area home to both a small warehouse district and two-story brick apartment buildings and clapboard rowhouses. That area, which it named the Meeker Avenue Plume, was declared a Superfund site on March 18. It’s the largest and most residential Superfund site in the city, and it gives Greenpoint the distinction of hosting half of the city’s four sites.
The EPA will be in charge of cleaning up the site and trying to get the now-closed businesses responsible for the plume to pay for it. But unlike a waterway that can be dredged, such as the Gowanus Canal, the polluted soil and groundwater can’t just be scooped up and hauled away. “You can clean up most of it; you can’t clean up all of it,” said Scott Yanuck, a geologist and the owner of Laurel Environmental Consultants, a remediation company on Long Island. However, as bad as it sounds, the zone isn’t so contaminated that it’s unlivable. He added, “It’s not like you have to leave the area.”
The greatest risk from CVOCs comes from indoor air: soil vapor containing the chemicals rising up through the earth, seeping into basements, and potentially into higher floors. In an outdoor setting like Sgt. William Dougherty Playground, which sits in the middle of the plume site, the chemicals dissipate more quickly in the open air. The chemicals act much like radon, a naturally occurring gas that’s the second-leading cause of lung cancer and is commonly found in homes throughout the Northeast. A radon-mitigation system keeps the gas out of basements by using a fan to draw it out from underneath the foundation and vents it out above the roofline. The same kind of system can keep CVOCs out of a Greenpoint rowhouse.
Christine Facella has this system in her Beadel Street home, where the venting pipe runs up from the basement through an interior shaft that also houses the plumbing. The only signs of it are a little monitor in her bathroom and the slight whirring sound of the fan that can be heard in the upstairs rental unit. She bought the house in 2009, and shortly thereafter DEC came by to take air samples and installed the mitigation system. “They didn’t find anything, but they put one in for protective measures,” she said. Both the testing and mitigation system were free; to date, DEC has installed just 24 across the entire 50-block area.
Actually cleaning up CVOCs is more complicated, however, because it requires reaching the groundwater buried below layers of dirt and infrastructure and streets and houses. But that just makes things a little more challenging, not impossible. “Although we do not yet know what approach we will determine is most appropriate to address this site over the long term, sites with contaminated groundwater are a relatively common occurrence in Superfund,” said EPA spokesperson Stephen McBay. Some possibilities include pumping the water up through wells and treating it, as was successfully done at another site on Long Island contaminated with dry-cleaning chemicals, or adding cleaners into the groundwater itself that break down the chemicals so they’re nonhazardous. While it’s likely that some new wells will have to be drilled to access the groundwater, cleanup efforts won’t require extensive excavation or cause anyone to temporarily relocate.
There’s no timeline yet for finishing the work, but unlike other Superfund sites, the EPA already knows a lot about the site thanks to DEC’s work, and that means it can probably move faster. “We’re not starting from square one,” said Willis Elkins, the executive director of the Newtown Creek Alliance, which has worked to inform locals about the pollution and pushed for the Superfund designation. Now that that’s happened, “there’s more resources for an ongoing cleanup, and the investigation is already underway.”
But if DEC made a good start on the research, it’s not handing off the most successful relationship with the community. Since the very early days of the plume’s discovery, many residents — whether worried about property values, immigration status, hidden costs, or just distrustful of government agencies — have been reluctant to let inspectors into buildings to test for CVOCs. And without knowing what the levels are, there’s no way to tell if a building needs a mitigation system. But the more urgent question is whether people living in the plume zone even know that it’s now a Superfund site.
Facella found out about the Superfund designation from a neighbor (they’re both litigants in the lawsuit against National Grid’s fracked-gas facility in Greenpoint). She went home and Googled it. “I think I found an article in Greenpointers — it felt like there was nothing official about it,” she said. “I don’t know how many of my neighbors connect with these media entities, so I’m not sure how they’d find out about this news.”