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On Newtown Creek, ‘a statement of faith’ in restoring a waterway

First Riverkeeper Newtown Creek patrol - 10_25_2002 -pg3-1000

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In receiving an award at NCA’s Tidal Toast, Riverkeeper Captain John Lipscomb celebrates a shared, 20-year effort to help this NYC waterway recover from a legacy of extreme pollution.

First Riverkeeper Newtown Creek patrolTwo decades ago – at 12:55 p.m. October 25, 2002 – Captain John Lipscomb first took Riverkeeper’s patrol boat into Newtown Creek, the tidal tributary that separates Brooklyn and Queens. The patrol log records what he and his crew and guests found there – a large oil sheen that would later become the subject of a Riverkeeper lawsuit against ExxonMobil. Between 17 and 30 million gallons of oil had spilled into the soil and groundwater in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, leaching into the creek.

“It was stunning. There was oil all over the water. It was just horrific to see,” Lipscomb recalled at a gathering Thursday night. Basil Seggos – then Riverkeeper attorney, and currently the Commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation – used his remarkable combination of legal expertise, communication skills and personal charm to take action for the creek. They began a campaign to bring community members, elected officials, fellow advocates and journalists out on the creek, again and again – an effort that continues to this day. “We realized that the only way we would build momentum on the creek was to get eyes on it,” Lipscomb said. “The only access to the creek was at the broken down bulkhead at Manhattan Avenue. You had to scramble down over the rocks. And so nobody saw the creek, and so nobody loved it. And it was really hurting.”

Ultimately, a settlement was reached in which ExxonMobil was required to comprehensively clean up the petroleum contamination and create a $19.5 million environmental benefit fund. The money is dedicated to enhancing open space, greening buildings, infrastructure, and neighborhoods, restoring the waterfront, and promoting environmental education and stewardship.

The patrols helped galvanize the local community to protect the creek and spurred the creation of Newtown Creek Alliance. Since then, Riverkeeper has taken dozens of actions against polluters on the creek, resulting in their compliance with the Clean Water Act and payment of tens of thousands of dollars for environmental benefit. We also helped convince the Environmental Protection Agency to list the entire creek as a Superfund site in 2010. “And now we have the city still using the creek as a sewer. Until that ends, this creek will not be healthy. And so we can never let up. We have the whole Superfund EPA effort. It’s going to take Newtown Creek Alliance and this community of people who care for the creek, to make it a good job, because they’re not going to do it without pressure,” Lipscomb said. “Newtown Creek Alliance, for me, is a statement of faith. Newtown Creek Alliance is here for a water body that, I can tell you, 90 percent of people have given up on long ago.”

On Thursday, NCA honored Captain John with its Restore Award. Christine Holowacz, a founding member of the alliance, received the Revitalize Award, and Mitch Waxman, the alliances’s historian and unofficial photographer, the Reveal Award. We heartily congratulate John and his fellow honorees, and celebrate the work he and Newtown Creek Alliance have done in partnership to transform the creek into a community amenity and lively estuarine habitat.

Katie Schmidt, NCA’s first director, presented the Restore Award. She had joined Riverkeeper’s initial patrol of the creek as part of efforts to educate people who fish in the area about the risks from contamination in fish. “John not just was there in October 20 years ago but he’s still there,” she said. “And he symbolizes why this group has had the effect it has; has achieved the accomplishments that it’s achieved: Because he’s watching. And he is acting on what he sees.” Neighborhood residents and advocates do the same, she said: “They speak up, and they talk about what they see, and they talk about what they dream of, and they hold us accountable for making change.”

Much more work lies ahead to restore Newtown Creek. Nowhere is that more evident than in EPA’s slow-moving Superfund remediation schedule, which won’t create a plan to remediate the creek until 2028, condemning the creek, its inhabitants and local communities to endure toxic contaminants for another generation. When compared to its sister site Gowanus Canal, Newtown Creek has been left in the dust. New York State has set goals for zero carbon emissions from electricity generation by 2040, and still the EPA won’t have dredged the toxic muck from the bottom of the creek by then. This has fueled further activism for the creek. We join our fellow members of the Newtown Creek Community Advisory Group – local residents, business owners, professors, environmental organizations and others – to demand the EPA commit to a more aggressive schedule to remediate Newtown Creek.

(L to R: Mitch Waxman, Natalie Vichnevsky and Willis Elkins of NCA, Christine Holowacz and U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez)

Congratulations again to Captain John Lipscomb for his dedication. Together, Riverkeeper, the Newtown Creek Alliance and the Newtown Creek Community Advisory Board will remain vigilant in pushing for long overdue action from the EPA and New York City.

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