For Educators
The Invisible Creek

Update from Craig Michaels of Riverkeeper  

Craig Michaels
Craig Michaels of Riverkeeper
April 21, 2009 — Riverkeeper initiated a citizen suit in January 2004 against two of the world's largest oil companies for the largest urban oil spill — right in the heart of New York City. In May 2004, Riverkeeper filed the lawsuit itself against ExxonMobil for violation of the Clean Water Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, and NYC Councilmembers David Yassky and Eric Gioia have joined the case as co-plaintiffs. In 2007, New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo initiated a suit against ExxonMobil on behalf of New York State.

Lipscomb, patrol boat captain for Hudson Riverkeeper, takes a sample to test the polluted waters of
Newtown Creek.
John Lipscomb, patrol boat captain for Hudson Riverkeeper, takes a sample to test the polluted waters of Newtown Creek. Photo by Giles Ashford.

For more than half a century, millions of gallons of oil have been oozing beneath Greenpoint, Brooklyn, courtesy of ExxonMobil and other oil companies. The spill courses beneath 55 acres of industrial, commercial and residential property, affecting 100 homes and dozens of businesses. Petroleum from the spill continuously leaks into Newtown Creek; globs of oil and a rainbow sheen constantly coat the surface of this small waterway separating Brooklyn and Queens. The spill — 50 percent larger than the Exxon Valdez disaster — is a major source of contamination throughout the New York Harbor. Carcinogens, lead, and a bevy of other toxins are carried for miles with the tides and currents. Though discovered 25 years ago and brought under state enforcement in 1990, remedial efforts have been a failure and the companies continue to violate federal law.

"The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is now considering listing Newtown Creek as a federal Superfund site."

Garbage along Newtown Creek
Garbage along Newtown Creek
Newtown Creek is still considered to be one of the most polluted waterways in the country, along with other New York City waterways such as the Gowanus Canal. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is now considering listing Newtown Creek as a federal Superfund site. EPA has recently concluded its sediment sampling program in the creek and will likely make a determination within the next year. The agency has already proposed listing the Gowanus Canal as a Superfund site and is now accepting public comments on the proposal.

Another problem plaguing these waterways are combined sewer overflows, or CSOs. Because of an outmoded and overburdened sewer system, New York City releases over 27 billion gallons of raw sewage into New York Harbor every year. Ten percent of that waste (2.7 billion gallons) flows directly into Newtown Creek.

Watch a video about Newtown Creek.

Read the original 2004 story about Newtown Creek.

Recent articles & blog posts on the subject:

Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn Is Given Superfund Status
The New York Times, March 2, 2010

As Sewers Fill, Waste Poisons Waterways
The New York Times, November 22, 2009

Feds mulling Superfund Status for Newtown Creek
NY Daily News, April 21, 2009

EPA Weighs in on Gowanus Canal Superfund designation
NY Daily News, April 16, 2009

Gowanus Developer to Pull Out if EPA Designates Polluted Canal a Superfund site
NY Daily News, April 10, 2009

George Trakas at the Water's Edge: Newtown Creek
Urban Omnibus Blog

Where Do You
We want to hear your thoughts on the issues. How do you relate to your environment? Do you know your local waterways as well as you know the roads? Share your story with us, and see what others have to say.

Share Your Story, Read

Related Links

East River Apprenticeshop

drops of water. Click here to go to top of page.

How Does Water Become Invisible?
How Does Water Become Invisible? Newtown Creek,
Brooklyn, NY

Watch & Listen

In 2004, Gregory Warner traveled down the "most polluted waterway" in America, Newtown Creek, located on the border between Brooklyn and Queens in New York City, with the Riverkeeper captain and investigation team. Learn about the amazing history of the creek and meet the group of inner city kids who have reclaimed it as a playground for their boat building and nature explorations. [7:49 minutes]
Maps and Legends:
Mapping your waterway can give you a whole new way of seeing your community.

In Border Talk
Elizabeth RoyteTrash-talking writer Elizabeth Royte explores the colorful story and impending fate of another polluted waterway, Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal.  Go 
Where Is My Water?
The weirdest thing we found on the Web about Newtown Creek was this 2007 Curbed post about the opening of a $3.2 million "nature walk" established near the Newtown Creek sewer treatment plant that "includes — unfathomably — a fishing area." Thankfully the park sponsors recommend "catch-and-release only, please." No eating!

All kidding aside, it turns out that the Nature Walk project is actually pretty cool, and may be a model for community involvement in public art projects.

Worried about polluted water in your neck of the woods? Check out these sites before embarking on your next nature walk.
EPA: Superfund Sites Where You Live
Search this comprehensive database via a clickable map interface to find all the designated Superfund sites in your area.
Scorecard Pollution Information
Another great resource for learning about pollution is Scorecard. Enter your zip code to get a report for your community, or use the Pollution Locator to search for specific areas or companies
EPA: Monitoring & Assessing Water Quality
Do you know only one third of American waterways are regularly monitored by the EPA? That's why monitoring is so important - whether you're using spectrometers and microscopes, or just your eyes and nose.
But how do you monitor? The simplest way is to visit rivers near you. If you notice any odd smells, or see something floating that doesn't look like it belongs there, report it. Access how-to manuals and phone numbers at the EPA's volunteer monitoring page. Browse back issues of the Volunteer Monitor to find out what groups are doing in your area.

Theresa Ramos

It Takes a Child to Raise a Village
Something happened to 13-year-old Theresa Ramos the summer she spent exploring Newtown Creek. She went from failing her classes to being a star freshman at the New York Harbor School. But it's not just Theresa's life that turned around. How one girl's love of boats stopped a whole family from sinking. (5:57 minutes).