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Businesses Near Newtown Creek Eyed After Series of Oil Spills, State Says

By Serena Dai | August 20, 2014 8:38am
 The number of oil spills reported on Newtown Creek has jumped this year, with nine reported incidents of petroleum on the water versus two last year in the same time period.
Newtown Creek Oil Spills
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GREENPOINT — The state is investigating local businesses near Newtown Creek after nine reports of oil leaks on the water this year — up from just two last year in the same period, according to state records.

Between April and June, the state Department of Environmental Conservation recorded seven separate incidents of "unknown petroleum" appearing on the water's surface near the Pulaski Bridge, including an incident involving 10 gallons. Two more sheens were spotted in August.

In the same time period last year, the department recorded just two incidents of "unknown petroleum" on the creek.

DEC spokesman Peter Constantakes said an investigation found that more than one facility near the creek potentially violated the laws for storing petroleum in bulk, causing the spills throughout the spring.

Constantakes declined to name the facilities, saying authorities are still investigating. He said the source of the problem was corrected to prevent further leaks. If found responsible, the businesses could face up to $25,000 fines per day of the violation, Constantakes said.

Facilities that store more than 1,100 gallons of petroleum in storage tanks above ground or underground and facilities with 110 gallons in individual underground storage tanks are subject to storage regulations, under the law.

Take a look at where the 2014 spills were located on this map.

Newtown Creek has been designated a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency, due to its long history of contamination and pollution. The waterway is still recovering from the effects of a decades-long oil spill from neighboring petroleum refineries including the Exxon/Mobil site, which the government estimates released between 17 and 30 million gallons of petroleum into the creek before being discovered in 1978.

While it's not unusual for oil from the creek's long history with spills to rise to the surface, many of this year's sheens looked too fresh to be from residual oil, said Willis Elkins, program director for the nonprofit Newtown Creek Alliance, a group dedicated to restoring the creek.

"If there's a large, bright rainbow of petroleum on the water, something’s a bit off," said Elkins, who has documented the sheens along with partners like Riverkeeper and North Brooklyn Boat Club.

The source of more recent rainbow sheens that have appeared in Dutch Kills in Queens may be from sediments, Constantakes said.

It's common to see chemicals in the water, especially after rainstorms, when oil or antifreeze from cars spills into the water, Elkins said.

But they are usually small and don't have the same bright, rainbow color of fresh spills, he said.

This year's sheens, called in by the alliance and its partners, have been larger and brighter than ones spotted in the past, Elkins said. In one case this May, the DEC recorded that about 10 gallons of petroleum were in the creek.

Newtown Creek Alliance has worked to improve conditions and access to the creek in its 12 years, Elkins said, noting that there are still living things in the water that can be impacted by oil.

The alliance posted to its blog earlier this month encouraging residents to report any additional oil sheens they see on the water.

"Just because it's a polluted body of water doesn't mean that it looking like it's very polluted is a normal thing," Elkins said. "There's ongoing pollution that can be prevented going forward."