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Engineers Evaluate Newtown Creek Superfund Site

Aerial view of Newtown Creek in New York City
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency listed the 3.8 mi long Newtown Creek in New York City as a Superfund site in 2010, and studies are now generating the data needed to craft a plan for its remediation. Wikimedia Commons/GK tramrunner

The phase I remediation investigation of New York City’s Newtown Creek Superfund site is nearing completion.

May 14, 2013—With a history that extends back to the earliest years of colonial America, the heavily populated Newtown Creek area in New York City has been home to industrial activities for hundreds of years. As a result of the damage to the ecosystem caused by industrialization—which kicked into high gear more than a century ago—the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) listed the 3.8 mi long Newtown Creek tidal water body as a Superfund site in 2010, starting a process of long-term remediation efforts for the uncontrolled hazardous waste that has been deposited into the waterway. Data collection under the initial remedial investigation/feasibility study was completed in February of this year, and engineers are analyzing the results to help craft a remediation plan.

Newtown Creek, which is a tributary of the East River, is located within New York City and forms part of the north-south border between its boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. The creek has five principal tributaries: Dutch Kills, Whale Creek, Maspeth Creek, East Branch, and English Kills, all of which were included in the remedial investigation and feasibility study.

According to the EPA, more than 300,000 New Yorkers live within 1 mi of the creek and its tributaries. More than 1,500 businesses are located within ¼ mi of the waterways’ shorelines. The area is part of the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary, which the EPA has designated as an “estuary of national significance.”

Phase I of the remedial investigation and feasibility study includes shoreline assessment; creek-bed surveys using bathymetric, magnetic side-scan sonar; fish community surveys; surface sediment samples; surface water sampling; and subsurface sediment coring that extended down to a native layer of the creek bed, located approximately 8 to 20 ft below the creek bed surface.

Six potentially responsible parties for the Newtown Creek site have been identified by the EPA: BP Products North America, Inc.; the Brooklyn Union Gas Company d/b/a National Grid NY; ExxonMobil Oil Corporation; Phelps Dodge Refining Corporation; Texaco, Inc.; and the City of New York. These six parties have signed an administrative order with the EPA agreeing to perform the remedial investigation and feasibility study under EPA’s oversight at a cost estimated at more than $25 million; to reimburse the EPA for its oversight costs; and to additionally reimburse $750,000 of EPA’s past costs, according to Elias Rodriguez, a press officer in the New York City office of the U.S. EPA. Rodriguez wrote in response to written questions posed by Civil Engineering online. The EPA anticipates that further potentially responsible parties will be identified as the investigation continues, at which point they will be added to the list, Rodriguez said.

The first known survey of Newtown Creek dates back to Dutch explorers from 1613 to 1614. Industry around Newtown Creek transitioned from agriculture to factories after the founding of the United States, manufacturing in the area specifically focused on glue, tin, rope, and tanneries, according to the remedial investigation and feasibility study work plan prepared by AECOM Environment, an environmental services division of AECOM that is based in Westford, Massachusetts.

By the mid-1800s, the Newtown Creek area was one of the busiest hubs of industrial activity within the city, according to Rodriguez. “More than 50 refineries were located along its banks, including oil refineries, petrochemical plants, fertilizer and glue factories, sawmills, and lumber and coal yards,” Rodriguez said. It is the pollution and contamination caused during these, and later, years that is of primary issue on the site.

In 1866, the city also began dumping raw sewage directly into the waterway, according to the AECOM report.

By 1900, the area was the most industrialized in the entire United States. The concentration of industry around Newtown Creek and its tributaries began to decline after World War II as shipping channels moved from waterways to highways. By the 1980s, such industries as cement production, scrap yards, construction supply, and liquid natural gas storage occupied the Newtown Creek shores. The Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, the largest of New York City’s 14 wastewater treatment plants, is also located along the creek’s shores, Rodriquez said.

Currently, there are 23 permitted combined sewer overflow discharges and more than 200 other storm water or industrial discharges into Newtown Creek and its tributaries, according to the AECOM report.

In the heyday of industrial activity and shipping along Newtown Creek, dredging of the creek occurred frequently, the channelization and deepening of the creek was completed by the 1920s and 1930s, according to the AECOM report. This extensive reworking of the creek altered it from a “natural drainage condition to one that is largely governed by engineered and institutional systems,” according to the report. No dredging has occurred on the waterway since 1974, when its shipping traffic declined, but later this year, dredging at the mouths of Newtown Creek and its Whale Creek tributary are scheduled to occur as part of work that is being done to remove a sludge tank at the sewer treatment plant, according to Rodriguez.

Once the remedial investigation and feasibility study data has been completely processed, analyzed, and validated by the EPA, phase II will begin with further field and ecological investigation work. The upcoming work will define the nature and extent of the contamination on the site. The completed feasibility study, which will analyze remedial alternatives, is slated for submission to the EPA in 2018 and will be followed by a proposed plan identifying the EPA’s preferred alternative. Following public input, the EPA will select the remedial approach in a record of decision.



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