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Advocates Press City to Change Potentially Harmful Cleanup of Newtown Creek

By Meredith Hoffman | September 11, 2012 8:17am | Updated on September 12, 2012 1:17pm

GREENPOINT — Advocates and scientists say the city should halt its current cleanup plan for Newtown Creek, after a new report showed the process has spread bacteria into the air and could present health risks.

“They need to go into the creek and do a much broader study,” said one of the researchers Eli Dueker, of the city’s need to assess whether the bacteria found caused disease. “If they’re pathogenic they can theoretically cause gastrointestinal illnesses, respiratory illnesses,” said Dueker, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Dueker and his colleagues studied the bacteria released above English Kills, a section of Newtown Creek by the Metropolitan Avenue Bridge, where the city has been aerating the water to increase oxygen levels to acceptable standards. Soon the city plans to begin aerating the rest of the creek, he said.

“We hope this gives the city pause before thinking about expanding this to the entire waterway,” he said. The study was a collaboration of Lamont-Doherty and Queens College scientists, along with Riverkeeper.

Dueker’s colleague Greg O’Mullan, an assistant professor in microbiology at Queens College and a researcher at Lamont-Doherty, said the aeration technique was just treating the symptom of contamination, which needs to stop through a decrease in sewage that is constantly dumped in the creek.

“Aeration does not decrease the amount of sewage in the water by a single drop. The primary issue is combined sewage overflows,” O’Mullan said, also warning against continuing aeration.

Advocates from Riverkeeper, the Newtown Creek Alliance, and North Brooklyn Boat Club said they have been arguing since last November against the aeration plan, which the city decided this spring to extend throughout the creek in the near future.

A spokesman from the DEP said that the aeration of the entire creek would be completed by 2019, and that the agency would review the study and determine if further steps were necessary. 

But advocates said they had been voicing concerns about the process since far before the study was released.

“We raised concerns when the city first proposed aerating the creek one year ago,” said Phillip Musegaas, an attorney with Riverkeeper. “We asked the city to test for sewage pathogens in the air and they did not agree to do so, they didn’t think it was necessary.”

And John Lipscombe, the boat captain and manager of the water quality program with Riverkeeper, called the “bubbling” (the aerating, which makes bubbles on the water’s surface) a “Band Aid” to a serious problem of sewage dumps and decades of oil spills.

“The water is totally disgusting. It’s a white-ish blue green and you’ve got all the telltales of the combined sewer overflow of the neighborhood…condoms, floating dead rats, tons of trash,” he said. “This is the water they’re bubbling in order to satisfy a regulation. They’re clearly moving water pollution into the air.”

But a DEP spokesman noted that the agency had invested in reducing combined sewer overflows throughout the city, amounting to $1 billion in in infrastructure upgrades since 2002 and an additional $1.7 billion worth over the next decade.

An additional $5 billion of public and private funding, he said, was planned in infrastructure investments that would reduce the overflows by 40 percent.

Meanwhile, environmental advocate Kate Zidar of the Newtown Creek Alliance said the study, while distressing, was not a surprise.

She suggested wetland restoration, shellfish restoration, and more to create a more “comprehensive restoration” of the creek, and said her organization had always claimed aeration was a “short sighted investment.”

“There are people living on the creek, on board boats on the creek, people who work on the water every day, and waterfront businesses and new and growing recreational uses on the creek,” she said of all the people affected by the air quality.

Longtime resident and advocate Laura Risi Hoffman said the study just reaffirmed what the community had "known all along,"  and that there must be health consequences to the air pollution.

"I'm not surprised at all!" she said of the study. "I don't believe that the problem is limited to bacteria either. There's many types of pollutants in that water. How can there not be health effects?"

And Dueker, who said the study was one of the first to link water and air quality, noted that the condition of Newtown Creek and other contaminated waterways connected people all over the city—and globe—with water pollution.

“It should really increase people’s interest in cleaning up the water because it affects the way we breathe,” he said. “Here’s the science, so now what do we do with it?”