Greenpoint

There are 3 active oil spills on Newtown Creek

May 20, 2019 Scott Enman
Two layers of booms help to contain oil from entering the main body of Newtown Creek and eventually New York Harbor. Photo courtesy of Newtown Creek Alliance

Three properties along Newtown Creek are actively discharging oil into the waterway, further polluting the already toxic federal Superfund site and possibly undoing years of mitigation efforts.

Two of the sites, Manhattan Polybag and Morgan Oil, were former oil storage facilities in Greenpoint. The third, Pratt Oil, was a refinery in Queens.

Ian Beilby, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation project manager for the creek, confirmed that he has witnessed some form of petroleum entering the water from all three sites at a Newtown Creek Community Advisory Group meeting on Wednesday. The state is addressing the problem, he said.

“It’s an area with a long industrial history,” Beilby told the Brooklyn Eagle. “A lot of that history led to legacy contamination that the state is actively involved in cleaning up through various programs such as the state Superfund, the brownfield cleanup program and the Emergency Response Spills program.”

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Willis Elkins, executive director of Newtown Creek Alliance, said that he doesn’t believe locals are fully aware of the number of contaminated sites that surround the creek and the impact these spills have on the waterway.

“Each site is different, but overall we feel like there is not enough information available as there should be,” Elkins told the Eagle. “We’d like to see more attention paid to it and also resources for the state to do more thorough investigations.”

Elkins pointed out the attention paid to the 1978 Greenpoint oil spill, one of the largest spills in the history of the country, which released 17 to 30 million gallons into the 3.5-mile waterway. But these three other spills, actively leaking toxins into the creek, have gone largely unnoticed by the public.

“Because of all of the lawsuits, advocacy and attention that was paid towards the Greenpoint oil spill, there is a lot more information available about the size, the extent, there are detailed maps outlining where the plume [is],” he said. “A lot of these other polluted sites and plumes that are near the creek, there isn’t as much information available.”


Newtown Creek Alliance takes product samples from the Morgan Oil site. Photo courtesy of Newtown Creek Alliance
Newtown Creek Alliance takes product samples from the Morgan Oil site. Photo courtesy of Newtown Creek Alliance

A few precautions have been put in place along the shoreline to contain the oil, such as hard and soft booms.

The hard boom — or containment boom — creates a physical division that keeps toxins secluded on one side of the wall, preventing them from entering the main body of the creek. The soft boom — or absorbent boom — works like a sponge, soaking up oil from the surface of the water.

The Queens location employs both a hard and a soft boom, while the two Brooklyn sites use only soft ones. While they are preventative, they are not entirely secure, according to Elkins, who said that contaminated water still goes into the creek from tidal flow and the wake of boats.

“They are definitely not foolproof measures to prevent oil from getting into the rest of the creek or into the harbor,” Elkins said. “We’ve seen these booms get caught up on the side of the shoreline depending on the tide. Some of them are better than others, but it’s hard to fully secure a site with a boom.”

Newtown Creek Alliance was succesful in pushing NYSDEC to install "No Wake" signs to prevent oil from entering the creek from the quarantined areas. Photo courtesy of Newtown Creek Alliance
Newtown Creek Alliance was successful in pushing NYSDEC to install “No Wake” signs to prevent oil from entering the creek from the quarantined areas. Photo courtesy of Newtown Creek Alliance

Newtown Creek Alliance did, however, successfully push the NYSDEC to install “No Wake” signs near the Pratt Oil site.

Contaminants from legacy pollution (chemicals that remain in an environment long after they are first released) are passing from the ground into the waterway at the Morgan and Pratt sites. At Polybag, an actual leak was noticed as recently as 2016 discharging oil from a bulkhead.

These are hard and soft booms at the Manhattan Polybag site along Newtown Creek. Photo courtesy of Newtown Creek Alliance
These are hard and soft booms — hard on the left, soft on the right — at the Manhattan Polybag site along Newtown Creek. Photo courtesy of Newtown Creek Alliance

Elkins, however, argued that additional measures could be taken to stymie the toxins from entering the creek, including restoring the shoreline and installing more recovery wells, which remove polluted ground water.

While the state is currently remedying these sites, the exact amount of oil that has already entered the waterway is unknown, leaving residents to wonder if more could be done to determine the exact extent of the pollution.

At this point, that certainty might not be within reach, according to Elkins. “A lot of these sites, unfortunately, are not investigated enough to really have a full idea of that,” he said.

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.


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