The Newtown Creek and historic oil spills

An essay by Alex Prud’homme on the subject of oil spills appeared in Sunday’s New York Times (An Oil Spill Grows in Brooklyn, published May 14, 2010, In the essay, Prud’homme says that the Deepwater Horizon petroleum spill now in progress in the Gulf of Mexico falls short in terms of volume of organic compounds released, at least to date, of the Newtown Creek spill. Prud’homme reminds us why the spill gives the Newtown Creek awkward status as a landmark: “an estimated 17 million to 30 million gallons of oil, benzene, naptha and other carcinogenic chemicals pollute Newtown Creek and a 55-acre, 25-foot-deep swath of soil in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.” The Deepwater Horizon has released so far roughly four million gallons.

During the period that the Newtown Creek was a key industrial production site, manufacturers of chemicals and refiners of petroleum were a great deal more casual about their waste streams than present day practice allows. Still, one could cite the present situation in the Gulf of Mexico to argue that the petroleum extraction industries are not in a position to boast about progress.

Our interest in Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront is largely an interest in history. Most of the industries that we study are no longer here. Newtown Creek is extraordinary for a number of reasons. The site is large enough to cruise for the best part of an hour, but as a major waterfront industrial site, it is small. The Creek is about three miles long; in contrast, the Houston Ship Canal runs 50 miles, from a site on the eastern side of Houston south and east to the Gulf of Mexico. As a chemist and thinker about chemical technologies, I find it striking that the Newtown Creek, despite its present-day ghost town feel, is the place that that very important methods and technologies relating to the production of chemicals, materials, and fuels were developed and put to vigorous practice. Technologically significant developments happened there, in the midst of the country’s most important center of trade and finance, technologies that created great wealth and supported the growth of several of the country’s largest corporations. To use a chemistry term, the Newtown Creek was a catalyst for the growth of the American chemicals industry, a site at which reactions can happen more rapidly than they otherwise would. It is also chemistry-speak to describe a catalyst as being “poisoned,” as for example when an impurity or reaction product coats its surface and renders the catalyst incapable of supporting more chemistry.

One other thing about the history of Newtown Creek: like that of the Deepwater Horizon, it is not yet over. As litigation and cleanup of the site’s industrial and petroleum pollution slowly continue, the Newtown Creek may begin to be identified as the site for development of landmark decisions and technologies in the area of environmental remediation.


10 responses to “The Newtown Creek and historic oil spills

  1. This is willvandorp again. New York groups such as Working Harbor ( and Pegasus Preservation Project ( sometimes run tours to the headwaters of Newtown Creek. I highly recommend such a tour for this group.

  2. By participating in creating a dialogue about the records, archives, inscriptions and markings of the Brooklyn industrial waterfront, this project engages history. “Our interest in Brooklyn industrial waterfront is largely an interest in history.” Our written responses to designated or curated articles, books and websites are recent inscriptions. Our current points of engagement with the Brooklyn waterfront are framed by this blog as a collaborative practice. The entries we are writing reveal shared fields of interest that inform the meaning of Along the Shore as a project extending to the worlds we live in, from the Brooklyn shore to the coasts of California, Texas, the shores of the Great Lakes, ports and waters in diverse places. Through engaging memory and historical writing we are participating in the construction of a discourse that is ongoing, and may extend into the future. The project is not purely historical. The shore itself is viewed through a range of temporal frames. As a sociologist I am concerned with the past, the present and the future. I am interested in facilitating community informatics (IT as a resource base) to grow awareness, consciousness raising, education, and political action. We are all part of the same project. For years stories have been written about the pool of waste oil, naptha and gasoline under the waterfront in Greenpoint. Over the same history, the toxic legacy of the oil and waste has been denied, belittled and redrawn on the map to limit fear. Over ten years ago I discovered that that Brooklyn water aquifer, a natural clay domed cavern filled with fresh water at one time, had been sealed in the 1940s so that fresh water from upstate New York could be directed to the city for human consumption. The aquifer had slowly filled with oil and waste, and as the water content declined, became an underground
    lake of toxic waste. New York journalists keep reporting that the waste exists. A link to a New York magazine story is included in this entry that shows a photograph of what I call an ooze point. The Newtown Creek used to sport slicks of unidentified oil. Historical archives report that the creek used to burn. An artist who lived in the manufacturing building on the creek over ten years ago claimed that he thought it still did. The other ooze points in Greenpoint proper have never been advertised. Residents would sometimes point out how oily soil was at certain points, including near waterfront Williamsburg round about the border of Greenpoint. I believe this persistent silence is produced because the location of ooze from the water or the soil could cause fear or interfere with property values. Exxon and earlier owners and land utilizers never completed or completely committed to cleaning the full spill. The ooze is toxic.

    • I enjoyed the article on Newtown Creek. I really liked the analogies and comparisons that were created by the writer and many of the lessons not learned from the current crisis in the Gulf.

  3. Diane Whitney

    Ouch. To those of us living in the Gulf region, as I do, the observation by Alex Prud’homme that the Deepwater Horizon spill “falls short” in any way whatsoever to the developments at Newton Creek is painful. Here in the Gulf area, we are likely looking at many decades of impact on the way of life of the Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida fishing communities, not to mention the loss of the use of many beautiful beaches and resorts, so highly treasured by our economy-sustaining visitors from “up North”.
    We are all hoping and praying that this situation does not follow the Gulfstream and wind around the state and travel up the Atlantic coast. I am employed at the Department of Environmental Protection, so I view daily the photographs of damaged waterfowl, turtles, bays and estuaries, along with photographs of workers for BP and Transocean as they walk on the beaches and attempt various strategies. So that is the “temporal frame” through which I view the deplorable (and hopefully remediable) state of Newton Creek. One is forced to marvel at how much of a mess humans have made as caretakers of this earth. Yes, our interest goes well beyond that of history. I recommend this website:

    • Thank you, Diane, for doing your job every day and facing that disaster and maintaining up to date information. I looked at the AP news from LA, cried, just cry looking at the oil soaked pelican colonies, ruined oyster projects. Gov. Jindel has tried to call national attention to his state’s dire emergency. LA and AL, FL were hit hard by hurricane damage in the last decade, and now poisoned with crude. BP should be acting quickly, decisively to stop the flow of more oil into the plume and instead they appear to be seeing how much marketable product they can siphon. If Obama can reform Wall Street, could he leverage real help and clean up money as quickly as possible from the polluters? Something has to change the oil companies attitudes.

  4. I lived in Greenpoint, Brooklyn on Eckford Street not far from Newtown Creek for five years. My friends and I were aware of the oil spill and jokingly called our neighborhood “Brownpoint.” After viewing the movie and hearing the phrase “15 feet of mayonnaise” describing the soft bottom of the Newtown Creek, I can’t get that imagery out of my head. 15 feet of gunk until you actually reach the hard bottom of the creek. Gross. Betsy McCully mentions the creek in “City at Water’s Edge” and quotes from a report: “the hundreds of acres of marsh saturated with the drainage and soakage of filth.” I shudder to think what is coming for the gulf region from the oil spill there. Our coastlines have been a dumping ground for so long. This contrasted with the new Italian amusements firms building new rides at Luna Park at Coney Island. This land is reclaimed as well according to McCully. Is it just a matter of time before all of this is swallowed by the next hurricane? Seems like it. I hope we can ride on some of those rides when we visit Coney Island but now I can’t stop thinking about the ground beneath us.

  5. A quick thank-you for both of the websites in this week’s assignment. Even though I’ve turned in the grades for my composition students, I nevertheless sent them an email with both web addresses. We had read Gore about global warming. And another one of the City Revealed segments was about Weeksville, an 19th-century African-American community in Brooklyn, which tied in well with DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folks that we’d read.

    One other minor note: The opening 4 paragraphs of Moby Dick give a lovely description of the Manhattan waterfront in the 1850s.

  6. I found the videos for this topic fascinating and am eager to learn more about the Newton Creek area and the MOMA architectural projects. Some of what the architects were describing (the rubber barrier reefs, for instance) sound very similar to things being discussed in conjunction with the Louisiana mess right now. If part of why we look at history is so that we’re not doomed to repeat it, we haven’t done a very good job of that with past environmental disasters, have we?

  7. I don’t know if looking at anyplace with a chemical plant can really be called history. The crap that comes out of those things will outlive the human race by a long shot.

  8. When I consider the oil spill in the Gulf, or the oil spill under consideration at Newtown Creek, I keep remembering the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. Humans will be living with that fall-out for years, as the ecology of the regions changes fundamentally, possibly without human components.

    I wonder when disaster planning (or, as my friends say I do, catastrophizing) will become required for all environmental studies.

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