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Renewed call for Newtown - Officials urge EPA to clean up creek

Congressmembers Anthony Weiner and Nydia Velazquez urged the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to designate Newtown Creek a Federal Superfund site, despite the near-depletion of funding available for the program over the past ten years.

“It’s time for the EPA to acknowledge what the people who live here already know: the contamination of Newtown Creek is nothing short of a human tragedy,” said Congresswoman Velázquez, whose district represents part of Newtown Creek. “The EPA should use its strongest tools possible to begin remediation. The time to act is now.”

Congressman Weiner called for the EPA to conduct testing on sites along Newtown Creek under Superfund, the federal government’s primary program for cleaning up hazardous waste in the environment. In a letter written to the EPA on July 14, Congressman Weiner’s office identified four sites for testing, including Phelps Dodge and 56th Road in Maspeth, Queens; BCF Oil on 360 Maspeth Avenue, Brooklyn; Quanta Resources on 37-80 Review Avenue in Queens; and National Grid, on Maspeth Avenue in Brooklyn. These sites consist of two former hazardous waste facilities, a former copper smelting plant and a former coal gasification complex.

“While the oil companies lag in their cleanup responsibilities, the health and safety of Newtown Creek’s residents hang in the balance,” said Congressman Weiner, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials. “Testing these four sites will help us find answers to basic questions about the spill’s health risks and give this national environmental disaster national attention.”

Since 1978, when oil pollutants were first discovered on grounds adjacent to Newtown Creek, community members and local elected officials have been battling with oil refineries and other industries to clean up the spill. About 9.4 million gallons of oil have been cleaned to date, though the EPA estimates that between 17 and 30 million gallons were spilled over an area in Greenpoint covering 55 to 60 acres.

Newtown Creek has never been tested by the EPA in order to qualify for the federal government’s Superfund program despite the presence of lead, mercury, and other carcinogenic agents. Under the government’s current cleanup plan, the site will not be fully remediated until 2026.

If the EPA eventually designates the site within the Superfund program, the agency would stabilize the area, removing any immediate threats to the community during a one-year period, before embarking on a comprehensive investigation and hazard removal process which could take between eight and twelve years. First, federal funding must be added to the Superfund program, which has declined precipitously from $3.8 billion in 1997 to only $178 million last year due to the expiration of a number of oil and corporate taxes.

“We need more federal accountabililty,” said John Collins, a spokesman for Congressman Weiner. “If the money isn’t in the fund right now, it doesn’t mean that it won’t be there in the future. With an Obama administration in the White House and a Democratic House and Senate, the environmental issues that have been ignored for years will be brought to the forefront. If we pass the foresights we outlined in the letter, we think we can do the cleanup a little bit faster.”

Basil Seggos, Chief Investigator and Hudson River Program Director at Riverkeeper, applauded the congressmembers’ efforts to advocate for a comprehensive cleanup of the Newtown Creek site under Superfund.

“The fund itself has been drying up but that doesn’t mean that the law behind it isn’t robust,” Seggos said. “The EPA can assess which companies were responsible for how much pollution and that may be a way of getting the companies to come to the negotiating table.”

Calls to EPA were not returned by press time.

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