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Feature Stories August 8, 2013  RSS feed

Tour Dives Deep Into Dutch Kills

Explores Pollution In Waterway
story and photos by Max Jaeger

The Long Island City Courthouse was one of the more attractive stops along the 13 Steps Around Dutch Kills tour, which took attendees on a historical walk of the waterway and explained its role in manufacturing over the last century and a half. The Long Island City Courthouse was one of the more attractive stops along the 13 Steps Around Dutch Kills tour, which took attendees on a historical walk of the waterway and explained its role in manufacturing over the last century and a half. As the face of Long Island City changes from grit to glitz, one neighborhood historian is taking residents on walking tours of the industrial waterways that shaped the booming mini-city.

Thirteen Steps Around Dutch Kills provides history and insight into an influential and oft-overlooked areas of western Queens: Newtown Creek and its Dutch Kills tributary.

Newtown Creek Alliance (NCA) Historian Mitch Waxman led a foray, last Sunday, Aug. 4, pointing out buildings once inhabited by famous manufacturers and energy concerns while explaining the “toxic legacy” left to bear in Newtown Creek—an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site and one of the most polluted bodies of water in the country.

Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman explains the role that the Long Island Expressway had in polluting the Dutch Kills, a tributary of Newtown Creek in Long Island City. Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman explains the role that the Long Island Expressway had in polluting the Dutch Kills, a tributary of Newtown Creek in Long Island City. Waxman’s tour flowed through southern Long Island City into Greenpoint, creating a brackish mix of the area’s manufacturing history and acrid present.

An industrial past

The tour started in the Hunter’s Point section of Long Island City near Court Square, where the Dutch Kills tributary once began its path toward Newtown Creek. The kills were dredged and canalized by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the early 20th century, Waxman said.

While in the heart of Hunter’s Point, Waxman gave a brief rundown of the area’s history, noting the Long Island City Courthouse, the former Neptune Meter Company (where now stands the graffiti mecca “5Pointz”), and the Brooks Restaurant—a favorite haunt of the graft-enmired Patrick “Battle Ax” Gleason, who served as the last mayor of Long Island City and who, along with a group of his supporters, reportedly attacked fences around the Long Island Railroad with an ax in protest of the railroad.

Waxman noted Long Island City’s Citigroup building—the tallest building on Long Island—calling it both “wildly out of scale” and the “lynch pin of modern Long Island City.”

“You can navigate northern Brooklyn and western Queens based solely on this building,” he said of the monolith.

As the tour moved over the Thomson Avenue bridge—which spans the Sunnyside Rail Yards—and headed south past the now-defunct Loose- Wiles Biscuit factory on Skillman Avenue and 29th Street (the largest bakery in the country when it was completed in 1912), Waxman told at- tendees the group was entering a forgotten part of Queens.

“Notice the alarming lack of graffiti around here,” he joked, drawing attention to how few people walk the industrial blocks surrounding the Dutch Kills tributary.

As the tour progressed, Waxman talked about the founding of Blissville as a utopian workers’ community and pointed out several other notable factories: a former General Electric factory that is now a self-storage site; and later, the former Leviton electrical component factory in Greenpoint.

Though many of the area’s most famed manufacturers have since left, Waxman said most of the buildings near Dutch Kills are occupied, noting the neighborhood’s burgeoning tech start-up community and several sound stages in the area.

The group got its first good look at the kills on 29th Street just south of 47th Avenue, where Waxman started explaining the environmental impact more than a century of industrial use has wrought on the waterway.

A “toxic legacy”

Prominent in the creek’s history is its role in the energy industry. The area was home to whale oil refineries in the 1840s. By the 1870s, petroleum had become the energy du jour, and more than 50 refineries were located along the creek’s banks, including oil refineries, petrochemical plants, fertilizer and glue factories, sawmills and lumber and coal yards.

A century and a half later, Newtown Creek ranks only behind the Gowanus Canal as the city’s dirtiest waterway, Waxman said. The EPA estimates it one of the dirtiest waterways in the country.

It is estimated that between the 17 and 30 million gallons of oil seeped into area soil and eventually into the creek over the years.

Waxman called it the biggest oil spill in history until the BP Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010.

One major contributing event, Waxman said, was a massive fire that burned for four days, razing a 20-acre standard oil refinery in Greenpoint in 1919. Several oil tanks caught fire, exploding or shooting into the air like rockets, Waxman said.

Now, a sludge colloquially described as “black mayonnaise” sits at the bottom of much of the creek, separated from the water by a layer of trash that includes about one-eighth of an inch of metro cards, he said.

Occasionally a pocket of oil floats to the surface and can be seen meandering down the run toward the East River.

Wastewater has also contributed to the creek’s pollution. The City of New York began dumping untreated wastewater into the creek in 1856. Now, thanks to tighter standards enacted over the years, the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant removes 85 percent of contaminants from the city’s wastewater before sending it into the creek.

Dutch Kills has tested positive for typhus, gonorrhea and cholera, Waxman said.

From the Borden Avenue Bridge, under the shadow of the Long Island Expressway (LIE), which spans Dutch Kills, Waxman explained how the LIE has exacerbated issues.

There’s nothing to prevent rain water from running off the street and into the creek, he said. The runoff carries discarded trash and leaked motor oil into the water below.

Waxman said green infrastructure projects—for instance a filtration system for LIE runoff—could help spur a local green industry that would leverage existing factories and railways to help clean the creek while bolstering local economy.

Today’s cleanup efforts

Since the true scope of the creek’s pollution was discovered in the late ‘70s, several efforts have been mounted to improve conditions in the watercourse.

The EPA designated the creek as a state Superfund cleanup site in 2010.

At present, the EPA, which administers the Superfund program, has identified six potentially responsible parties for the Newtown Creek site: BP America, Inc.; National Grid; ExxonMobil Oil Corporation; Phelps Dodge Refining Corporation; Texaco, Inc.; and the City of New York, according to information from the EPA.

The parties are believed to have made significant contributions to the creek’s current condition, and under Superfund, responsible parties are liable for the cost of investigating and remediating sites where hazardous substances have been released or have come to be located, EPA documents said.

The EPA finished preliminary sampling of the watercourse as part of the cleanup’s first phase in late 2012.

The Army Corps of Engineers will dredge portions of the creek this October to create a path for barges operating out of a new waste transfer station being built in another tributary called Whale Creek, according to Dorothy Moorehead, Community Board 2’s Environmental Committee Chairperson, who spoke during a community board meeting earlier this year. She said the project will not interfere with cleanup efforts and that contaminated soil will be properly disposed of.

In addition to federal cleanup projects, the city is working to inject life into the creek with a series of aeration facilities.

The facilities blow oxygenated air into the creek to increase levels of the gas and make the water habitable— similar to a fish tank’s air pump. During the summer, the water in some portions of the creek has almost no oxygen, officials told this paper in May.

In 2008, the city built one aeration plant on the English Kills tributary in East Williamsburg. Another is slated for 2018 in Maspeth, and a third facility is projected to open on the Dutch Kills in 2019.

Adding oxygen supports life in the creek and agitates the mostly-stagnant water.

According to Waxman, there are other creative and environmentally conscious ways to clean the creek— like oil-eating fungi used in a process called mycoremediation.

As the long process of cleaning the creek continues, small signs are showing the efforts are not in vain.

Birds are returning to the creek, he said. Over the course of six expeditions, members of the NCA have identified more than 40 species of birds living in the creek. There’s even an osprey, Waxman said.

“There are 19 ospreys living below White Plains, and one is in Newtown Creek,” he said triumphantly.

In closing the tour, Waxman bridged a gap between Long Island City’s industrial past and real estate future.

“I want this to be a reminder,” he said. “When we’re talking about this brave new world/next big thing in Long Island City, we’re forgetting about the last big thing—industry.”

The NCA will hold a boat and walking tour of the creek on Sept. 28.