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, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/16/opinion/16Prudhomme.html). 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.