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VIDEO: Environmentalists Check Pollution in Newtown Creek Ahead of Cleanup

By Gwynne Hogan | May 20, 2016 11:59am | Updated on May 23, 2016 7:49am
 Willis Elkins boats down the Newtown Creek each week collecting water samples.
Willis Elkins boats down the Newtown Creek each week collecting water samples.
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DNAinfo/Gwynne Hogan

GREENPOINT — As part of efforts to arm the community with more information about the health of the Newtown Creek during its decades-long clean up process, this spring a local nonprofit began regularly collecting water samples at different spots along the creek.

Willis Elkins, a project manager at the Newtown Creek Alliance, is the lucky man on the job. Each week he sets up a dingy with an electric motor, dons a pair of massive rubber gloves and travels the length of the creek collecting jars of murky water.

"We want people engaged, the more people there are fighting for a cleaner creek, the more likely it's going to happen," said Elkins, who said that the whole Newtown Creek cleanup process could take upwards of 20 years.

The samples Elkins collects are then passed off to LaGuardia Community College's lab that will study them for dissolved oxygen, salinity, nitrogen and phosphate levels —  all different ways of monitoring water quality.

They've strategically selected different spots along the creek — in areas with steady currents, more stagnant water and parts of the creek near sewage drainpipes.


The water testing comes from a grant from the Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund, money pledged to Greenpoint following the 2011 the settlement with ExxonMobil.

The Newtown Creek curls around the industrial zones between Greenpoint and Long Island City abutting waste transfer facilities, a Con Edison power plant, the city's largest wastewater treatment facility, recycling and scrap metal plants, all currently being used.

Despite all the activity, swaths of the waterfront are vacant — decaying industrial buildings, crumbling bulkheads, rotting docks and even massive, rusted-out barges sunken in the depths, peer above the surface.

And floating along the creek can feel like you're out in a small country town — everyone you pass by on the banks waves at you.

Since Elkins began regularly testing creek waters he's noticed that water quality and the amount of visible trash fluctuates dramatically depending on the winds and rain and the ebbs and flows of the tide. He's seen scores of dead rats and the occasional feral cat bobbing in the waters, he said. 

Condoms and tampon applicators are indicators that raw sewage is leaking into the creek, though sometimes there are even more visceral indicators, like last Friday when Elkins shot a video of actual human waste spewing into the creek.

Despite decades of pollution that earned the Newtown Creek a Superfund designation by the federal government, the aquatic environment has proven resilient.

Cormorants, geese, mallards, swallows, plovers, barnacles, mussels, shrimp, an array of fish call the creek home.

"In a lot of ways it's not that hard to imagine a cleaner Newtown Creek and a place where people actually want to to come to," Elkins said.


On the Newtown Creek with the Newtown Creek Alliance testing the waters. @dnainfonyc

A video posted by Gwynne Hogan (@fritsyg) on