NEW YORK — Just across the East River from midtown Manhattan's shimmering skyscrapers sits one of the nation's most polluted neighborhoods, fouled by generations of industrial waste, overflow from the city's sewage system and an underground oil leak bigger than the Exxon Valdez spill.
It's easy to see — and smell — the filth in and around Newtown Creek, which runs through an area of working-class homes, warehouses and industrial lots straddling Brooklyn and Queens. The odor of petroleum mixes with the smell of sewage, particularly on rainy days when the city's treatment plants can't handle the volume and municipal pipes send trash and human waste straight into the creek.
Oily, rainbow-slicked water is filled with soda cans, plastic bottles, raw sewage and decaying food. Ditched vehicles are stuck in the mud on the banks. And what was once a creek teeming with fish, surrounded by marshland, is now a dull gray waterway that cannot sustain life.
"It's the byproduct of our society," says environmentalist John Lipscomb of the Riverkeeper clean-water advocacy group. "What was originally a watershed is now a sewage shed."
After generations of neglect, the first, small steps are being taken in a multi-pronged cleanup that could take at least a dozen years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But even the most hopeful officials acknowledge the watershed may never be clear of all pollutants.
There was a time when Newtown Creek was the city's industrial mecca. The Rockefellers operated the nation's first modern refineries on its banks in the late 1800s. Others quickly sprang up.
For much of the 20th century, the neighborhood teemed with commercial vessels and factories that made products as varied as fertilizers, chemicals, lumber and glue. Their oil and other hazardous waste was either dumped or leaked into the creek, bit by bit, accumulating at the bottom.
The first sign of the looming ecological disaster came on Oct. 5, 1950, when petroleum gases from the hidden spill seeped into the sewer and caught fire, causing an explosion that blew dozens of manhole covers three stories into the air, shattering windows in hundreds of buildings and ripping a street open. Three people were injured.
But decades would pass before the creek got any real attention.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared Newtown Creek a Superfund site in 2010 — "one of the most polluted urban water bodies in the country," according to EPA regional administrator Judith Enck.
Today, the creek's bottom is lined with a 15-foot-thick layer of petroleum-based pollutants that scientists have dubbed "black mayonnaise." The ooze penetrated the shoreline and now sits on top of the water table dozens of feet under Brooklyn's gentrifying Greenpoint neighborhood. More than 300,000 people still live within a mile of the creek.
Scientists are using sonar to probe the muck in the 3.5-mile waterway in hopes of determining the best way to conduct the cleanup, which will be financed by six entities that inherited the pollution: Exxon Mobil, Texaco Inc., the Phelps Dodge Refining Corp., BP Products North America Inc., National Grid NY and the city of New York.
One method used at other Superfund sites is to dredge the sediment from barges carrying cranes with scoopers, then capping the bottom to block any residue of oil, pesticides, chemicals and other pollutants.
"The mud is so heavily saturated with oil you can smell it," says Phillip Musegaas, a Riverkeeper attorney who spearheaded several lawsuits linked to the pollution. "I've never seen anything like it."
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