Public Lab Research note

Newtown Creek EPA Superfund CAG meeting

by liz | October 02, 2014 00:00 02 Oct 00:00 | #11228 | #11228

Above: CAG co-chairs Mike Schade opening the meeting.

This note documents the events at the October 1, 2014 meeting. Specifically, the sections documenting the EPA presentation are intended to provide a basis for a collaborative document in which the CAG will formally pose questions to the recently posted Phase 2 plan. FYI, total estimated cost of Phase 1 + Phase 2 assessments amount to $40 Million USD.

Official website for Newtown Creek Superfund:


  • Willis Elkins from North Brooklyn Boat Club
  • Randy Austin from NYSDEC "Chief Spill Prevention & Response Programs"
  • [NAME] report back from boat tour with Potentially Responsible Parties
  • EPA remedial investigation overview with Joe Battipaglia
  • EPA Phase 1 investigation summary with Caroline Kwan
  • EPA Phase 2 investigation Summary with Caroline Kwan

Oil sheen on the creek for months, many eyes on waterways led to a victory

Willis says: Visible petroleum sheen has been observed since May by the Pulaski bridge and on Dutch Kills in queens. Regular communication with DEP and DEC and community partners. A breakthrough occurred 2 weeks ago when an anonymous tip reported oil dumping happening on Dutch Kills.

WIllis hands the mike to Randy with NYSDEC, who teaches a class called "Oil Spills 101" to citizen groups. Randy describes a consistent rainbow sheen that was unusual, brassy with purples, indicating a heavy oil. DEC caught the person redhanded who is denying any wrong doing. Multiple violations of this type can result in a six figure fine. NYSDEC also did sampling, results are back, can't release them yet as investigation is ongoing.

Oil spill reporting hotline: 800-457-7362

Questions and next steps

Can DEP set up a regular submission site to receive photos from citizens?

  • Randy response: best to go to the class first, then be in communication. North Brooklyn Boat Club may be hosting another class next month, let's invite Public Lab to that.

Report back from Boat Tour with Potentially Responsible Parties

What is actually happening inside of anchored QEA facility in L.I.C.? Field samples being collected and prepared to be sent off for analysis. This is paid for by "potentially responsible parties" of the "Newtown Creek Group".

Clearly visible in the sediment cores is the hard line of "before oil use" and "after oil use"--basically, the brown sediment turned to black once the Industrial Age started.

Some notes about sites along the canal

  • There is a Brownfield Opportunity Area report available for the location nearby LaGuardia College.
  • Farther along the canal, Standard Oil was operating for 100 years on both sides of the canal.
  • Maspeth Creek is a potential restoration site, but then there's a giant CSO dumping mind-boggling amounts of sewage.
  • English Kills has the DEP aerator that spews microbes into the air.

During the boat tour, the Newtown Creek Group of "Potentially Responsible Parties" kept asking what the community vision was, an industrial creek, or a recreational swimmable boatable creek. We -- the Community Advisory Group -- need to have that discussion later.


EPA presentation Phase 1

  • Phase 1 was completed in March 2013
  • results: Surface Water: metals and PAHs present throughout. Not much VOC
  • results: sediment: metals, PCBs, PAHs
  • results: air: similar to background

CAG questions on Phase 1 report

  • during discussion, Chuck from EPA explained that the air data was collected over 24 hours, and then averaged. They will not release the peak maximum levels.
  • multiple boaters contested this, saying they have had personal experience of feeling dizzy and nauseated while in small craft on the Creek. One particular account by Riverkeeper staffer Scott reported that while kayaking in proximity to a tug boat preforming 3 pt turn in an irregular spot of the canal, enough sediments were kicked up to cause an oil spill to which the Coast Guard responded, and Scott was sick for 3 days.

Reference areas have been chosen to serve as background readings:


  • gerritsen creek by Floyd Bennet Field on Jamaica Bay
  • Head of Bay, Jamaica Bay by JFK airport
  • Spring Creek on Jamaica Bay
  • Westchester Creek in the Bronx

EPA presentation on proposed additional Phase 2 assessments

  • phase 2 underway since May (plan posted above)
  • Goal: to fill in data gaps, focus on key areas, and assess risk to human and ecological health.
  • CAG raises issue: why was this plan prepared and put into execution without CAG input? This note seeks to serve as a basis for CAG response to the Phase 2 plan, as described in the header.

Risk Assessment Surveys:

Wildlife / habitat surveys: * larger animals. * CAG points out that Kingfishers and swallows burrow into bank

Caged Bivalve Studies

  • On September 15, 2014, 10 locations of 30 mussels per cage were installed in the water for 60 days.
  • Willis points out that it would be good to compare native red mussels with the mussels that EPA is putting in cages.
  • Sarah Durant seconds and amplifies, questioning use of cages at all versus sampling the mussels that have lived their whole lives in the Creek.
  • Several questions about why not oysters, considering that there is a "Billion Oyster NYC" project currently happening. Responses from the CAG, not EPA, mention that DEC is actively discouraging the reseeding of oysters because people eat them.
  • Willis points out there are native oysters living in Newtown Creek.

Biota Sampling:

  • Biota Sampling: dissecting striped bass, blue crab. Whole body and fillet samples will reveal impacts on wildlife.
  • Sarah Durant asks: why not killifish? EPA answers: they are too low on the food chain.
  • CAG member asks: what vegetation sampling? EPA answers: there are no vegetation indicators in Superfund.
  • RIverkeeper staff Scott responds that bio-accumulation begins as this lowest level. He says we do not want to repeat the mistake that NYC Dept of Health did of not testing fish. (reference?)
  • Additional response from CAG: Asian (likely Korean) families has been seen harvesting fruits from trees that grow on edge of canal (likely mulberry). EPA response: we are shocked to hear this. We will take this account of human exposure to toxins that may be contained in vegetation and will bring back a comment to the CAG.
  • Further CAG comment: vegetation may in fact be part of the way to preform cleanup, as in phytoremediation, as in the case of mushrooms currently installed on the former Exxon oil site here on Newtown Creek.

Surface/Subsurface Sediment Sampling:

  • more sediment cores focused on key areas identified in Phase 1
  • CAG question: how far upland are sediment cores being taken? EPA responds: the current boundaries of the superfund site are only bank-to-bank up to the high tide line. BUT, EPA continues, the point of this project is to find the sources of pollution, wherever they may originate.
  • Sarah Durant fills in some additional points about the regulatory landscape over land in the Creek's watershed: NYC Dept Environmental Protection has jurisdiction over upland areas and can deal with individual property owners. In addition, DEP hired a contractor to identify sources of freshwater flowing into Newtown Creek, name of Christopher F. Smith. No public person has seen results of this.

Surface Water Sampling:

  • this will account for about $5M of the total $40M that will be spent assessing.
  • In creek sampling during four (4) major rain events. There will be eight (8) locations per event. Location types include:
    • combined sewer overflow sites
    • stormwater direct drainage sites
    • private discharge sites
    • roadway drain sites
    • direct discharge from Water Pollution Control Plants (sewage treatment plants)
  • 24 personnel needed per event, including to stop traffic on roads where manholes are located in order to get as close to the tide gates as possible. Basically, they will pop a manhole, drop a tube with nine (9) pipes at multiple heights in order to cross section the flow during the beginning, middle, and end of the overflow event.
  • More than Eighty (80+) variables will be collected, including:
    • VOC
    • semi-VOC
    • pesticide
    • PCB
    • dioxin
    • salinity
    • chloride
    • sulfate
  • this is more intensive than what was done at Gowanus, which was only a grab sample at one height.
  • CAG asks: can we include prescription drugs and artificial estrogens?
  • CAG asks: at least one of these events needs to happen after a winterstorm when Dept of Sanitation salted down the roads. We need to see the impacts of that salt on waterquality.
  • EPA says, at this point, all options are on the table for whether EPA will need to get involved here with ongoing sewer overflows in order to address legacy pollution.

Groundwater Sampling:

  • requires divers
  • Groundwater is sampled through Monitoring wells and geoprobes.
  • Porewater (the water between the particles in subsurface sediment) will be sampled.
  • Seepage meter will be used to measure if porewater is moving up into surface water, for instance, by displacement by rising groundwater.
  • Sediments will be measured by boring.

open questions about urban development from CAG:

  • Note: there is nothing related to new buildings being built, and additional human population density coming to the banks of Newtown Creek that is being addressed by Phase 2
  • Sarah Durant and several other CAG members ask: who is monitoring new developments being built on the shoreline? Does EPA send Army Corps of Engineers requirements originating from the CAG for a green shoreline? EPA answers: in the Gowanus, the EPA has bulkhead control because they have completed their research and have all the final data to support design decisions. We won't have this in Newtown Creek for a couple years while we complete the assessments.
  • I ask, is there coordination between EPA and DEP during this period to coordinate large DEP stormwater infrastructure projects that are in development now that will affect the future of the Creek? EPA says: we are supposed to tell each other what the plans are.

Pictures of the meeting

Large attendance


Community Involvement Coordinator, Wanda Alaya:


Remedial Project Manager, Caroline Kwan:



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