Brooklyn’s North Border Dump Site: Newtown Creek patrolled by riverkeeper

December 7, 2015 By Scott Enman Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Riverkeeper patrol boat Capt. John Lipscomb. Eagle photos by Cody Brooks
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“The wind blew and the sh*t flew,” were the first words the Brooklyn Eagle heard on a recent morning before climbing aboard the Riverkeeper patrol boat to explore one of Brooklyn’s lesser known waterways.

While many Brooklynites know of the Gowanus Canal — arguably one of the dirtiest waterways in America — fewer are aware of Brooklyn’s almost equally heinous body of water: Newtown Creek.

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The 3.5-mile estuary runs through a part of the border between Brooklyn and Queens and along the edges of Greenpoint and East Williamsburg.

The Eagle had the privilege of joining Riverkeeper’s Patrol Boat Capt. John Lipscomb — the man responsible for the aforementioned rhyme — on his patrol through Newtown Creek.  

Riverkeeper is a member-supported watchdog organization that calls itself “New York’s clean water advocate” and whose mission, according to its website, is “to protect the environmental, recreational and commercial integrity of the Hudson River and its tributaries, and safeguard the drinking water of nine million New York City and Hudson Valley residents.

“Riverkeeper is the public’s investigator, scientist, lawyer, lobbyist and public relations agent for the Hudson River.”

Lipscomb, who patrols the creek once a month, compares himself to a police officer.

“I do traditional pollution patrol, and I’m basically like a squad car cruising around the neighborhood,” he said. “In the course of our running, in our patrols, we’re obviously looking for polluters, but we’re also doing outreach. We do a lot of water quality sampling for sewage contamination. We sample from the Gowanus all the way up to the Mohawk River.

“Essentially, the boat is used for whenever we identify a way we can help the river. We’re here to serve the river and the boat is one of the tools at Riverkeeper.”

Although Newtown Creek doesn’t boast a lime green tint and doesn’t have stagnant trash atop its waters like the Gowanus Canal, don’t be fooled; it’s virtually just as dirty.

“It’s really disgusting,” said Lipscomb. “It smells bad, it looks horrible, it sticks on the side of our little aluminum boat and it’s nasty. It doesn’t come off with acetone. It’s just the nastiest things, depending on the day.”

Like the Gowanus Canal, Newtown Creek is a Superfund site.

The creek was proposed as a potential Superfund site in September 2009, and it officially became one in September 2010.

Superfund, which was created by Congress in 1980, gives the Environmental Protection Agency  the resources and the ability to investigate and clean up polluted sites.

The goals of Superfund, according to EPA, are to “protect human health and the environment by cleaning up polluted sites, involve communities in the Superfund process and make responsible parties pay for work performed at Superfund sites.”

Over the years, channelization made Newtown one of the most heavily used bodies of water in the Port of New York. In addition, the many industrial factories that lined its waterfront have released toxins and industrial waste into the water.

One of the biggest culprits of Newtown’s pollution is ExxonMobil, which is known for the notorious Greenpoint oil spill of 1978, which dispensed between 17 and 30 million gallons of oil into the creek.

“If Riverkeeper didn’t enforce [Newtown Creek],” said Lipscomb, “certain individuals and companies would do illegal things, like dumping oil and washing cars in places with less public access points.”

Willis Elkins, a staff member at Newtown Creek Alliance, added that the polluters “can’t [pollute] off the Battery in Manhattan because people would see it.”

Newtown, however, despite the polluters, does look cleaner than its Gowanus neighbor.

That cleaner appearance is the result of a variety of factors.

For starters, the creek is not only longer than the Gowanus, but it is also much wider. Due to the fact that it has a larger mouth leading into the East River, there is more wind than in the Gowanus, which is narrower and almost entirely inland.

In addition, the creek has a stronger current than the Gowanus and has a natural flushing system rather than the manual flushing tunnel of the Gowanus.

Newtown’s natural flushing system routinely brings fresh water in and out of the creek from the East River.

All of the aforementioned factors help keep Newtown looking relatively clean, but beneath the inhabitable waters, one can find an abundance of oil, cement and sewage.

Although the creek’s main throughway is relatively clean, go a bit deeper into the smaller tributaries that have less water movement, and it is reminiscent of the Gowanus, with clearly visible trash floating in the neon green water.

On this particular outing, the Eagle’s staff explored one of Newtown’s many tributaries called English Kills.

In addition to Riverkeeper, the Newtown Creek Alliance, a “community-based organization dedicated to restoring, revealing and revitalizing Newtown Creek,” accompanied us.

We traveled in a rickety canoe a few inches above Newton’s toxic water.

As we entered English Kills, the pollution became more visible. Some noteworthy pieces of debris included used condoms, a tire and a floating doll.

Lipscomb reflected on past experiences with journalists who accompanied Riverkeeper.

“I take guests in the small aluminum boat because it gets them close to the water and because it gets them into all those little side basins where my big boat can’t fit. It gets them into the far reaches of Newtown where we’re trying to create a visceral response.

“I say, ‘OK, climb in,’ and I can tell you [that] very often, whether they say it or not, people are frightened of the water… and when you think about it, for humans to be frightened of some spray on them or getting their hands wet is really kind of an alien sentiment. When people shift their weight, there’s all this body language of stress and that says it all. It’s water that is so obviously contaminated that it’s frightening to people.”

Although we weren’t equipped with heavy-duty, water resistant gloves like Lipscomb, luckily no one from the Eagle was exposed to the notorious waters.  

In addition to the industrial waste and oil spills, raw sewage from Brooklyn’s sewer system is another large factor in the pollution.

According to Elkins, the creek has 22 Combined Sewage Overflow pipes and four major pipelines.

There are, however, bulkheads that keep the trash contained to the dead ends of the creek.

Newtown Creek is significantly cleaner than it used to be, and much of that improvement must be credited to Lipscomb, his Riverkeeper crew and Newtown Creek Alliance.

Still, there is much work to be done.  

“When you find something that is really bad, there are two kinds of things you uncover,” said Lipscomb. “Sometimes, you collect photographic evidence, and then either our team files a notice of intent to sue or we provide the evidence to the DEC and they do the enforcement, so there have been a number of those in the past and they come from patrols and from anonymous tips.

“One of the things you’re doing when you patrol in there is you’re encouraging the public to get involved,” added Lipscomb. “It would seem like if you lived near Newtown and you saw polluters, you’d call the DEC, but the fact is some of the public…comes to us instead, and then we have to decide if we have the capacity in terms of staff and resources to move on it or if we want to refer it.

Lipscomb has caught innumerable offenders over the years.

“Some [cases] are very simple. We saw one property where cement byproduct was being washed into the water. I don’t know if it was an accident. I don’t know if it was deliberate… but it doesn’t matter. In that case, we took photographs, sent our own notice, delivered it to the DEC and it was taken care of.”

The patrol boat captain doesn’t care how small of a violation there is; he’ll hold the culprit accountable.

For example, on a smaller scale, Lipscomb had once seen two workers eating their lunches on the edge of Newtown Creek. Upon finishing their lunches, the two men threw their Styrofoam containers into the creek.

Lipscomb, after witnessing this, immediately shouted out to them, but they didn’t speak English.

He subsequently called the company that the men worked for and within minutes had the manager and the workers outside, and he explained to them the importance of keeping the creek clean even on a very minor level.

“The best outcome is that the developer between his project and the creek has to respect the creek, period. If he doesn’t respect it on any level, there’s going to be a number of layers of community contact and potential enforcement.

“You’re basically communicating that the water body has allies and friends, and those friends are going to act to the best of their ability if there is an insult to the water in any way. You want that creek to have voices and allies because it can’t defend itself.”

Lipscomb returned to his police officer analogy.

“You have to remember the cop that drives around the community in the squad car. If that cop doesn’t write one ticket in a whole day or a week or a month, that’s a great thing. And does that mean you can stop patrolling? Not at all.”

Lipscomb says that the “greatest value to the community is your value as a deterrent, so it’s almost what you don’t do that has the greatest value.”

“I have to constantly remind myself,” said Lipscomb, “because I think if I haven’t uncovered something, I haven’t earned my keep. But patrolling is important.”

The future, however, looks bright.

For example, as we paddled along, we saw several species of animals such as mallards, different types of fish and even a red tail hawk living in or near the creek.

In addition, ExxonMobil has given $19.5 million as a result of its settlement over its Greenpoint oil spill. That money is going toward raising awareness of the creek’s condition and toward creating many greening projects along the creek’s shores.

“I’m trying to get people inspired to do something,” said Lipscomb, “and the best way to do that is to take them in there and to build community and partnership. To some extent, Riverkeeper can back off now, because [Newtown Creek Alliance] has taken the lead.

“The torch has been passed.”

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