City seeks help in planning future for Newtown Creek

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Officials from the DEP told Community Board...

By Dustin Brown

The city’s Department of Environmental Protection is calling on borough residents who live around the Newtown Creek to help them envision future uses for the once-filthy body of water as its cleanup progresses.

Officials from the DEP told Community Board 5 at its monthly meeting Jan. 8 that community participation will play a vital role in the agency’s Use and Standards Attainment Project, which has been designed to bring the city’s waterways up to state and federal environmental standards.

John Leonforte, a chief of intergovernmental coordination with the DEP, said the study will eventually determine “how to make the best possible use that the community would like to see of these water bodies.”

The standards project is focused on cleaning up 26 bodies of water around the city, including open water areas such as Jamaica Bay and the East River as well as tributaries like Flushing Bay and Newtown Creek.

Community leaders applauded the invitation for public participation but questioned the city’s timeline, which calls for the next few years to be devoted to planning.

“To have the history and the knowledge of the people who live by the affected waterways, it definitely is a smart, commendable way of doing things,” said Tony Nunziato, the chairman of the community board’s environmental committee. “I don’t agree with this timetable. I think something could be drawn up within a year or two and then start the process of cleaning.”

The community board grappled with the water quality of Newtown Creek late last year when the state Department of Environmental Conservation held public hearings to solicit input on the cleanup of the Phelps Dodge site, a 35-acre property abutting the waterfront that is being targeted for an extensive cleanup of industrial pollution.

Nunziato suggested that the millions of dollars in cleanup money provided by the Phelps Dodge mining company be devoted to expediting the city’s efforts with the creek. But he said the two agencies coordinating the projects appear to suffer from a gap in communication.

“I definitely think they should use the Phelps Dodge as the seed money to get it going,” Nunziato said. “It sounds like the [state] DEC is not reaching out to [the city DEP] saying, ‘Don’t forget, when it comes to the creek there’s going to be money from Phelps Dodge.”

The public participation in the creek’s cleanup will come by way of what has been dubbed a “stakeholders team,” which will be made up of representatives from the three areas that surround the creek: Community Boards 2 and 5 in Queens and Community Board 1 in Brooklyn. Different teams will be formed to evaluate each of the 26 water bodies targeted by the project.

In certain respects the cleanup at Newtown Creek has already begun.

An experimental aeration facility is pumping air into the water to raise its dissolved oxygen content, fostering the growth of wildlife.

Meanwhile, the city is looking to acquire a piece of land where a tank can be built to store the overflow sewage that cannot be treated when precipitation overwhelms the city’s sewer system, which combines sanitation flow with storm runoff. Whereas the overflow has historically been dumped untreated into city waterways, the tanks would enable the sewage to be stored and treated later.

The standards project represents only the latest effort to clean New York’s waterways, which are considered to have improved considerably in the three decades since the federal Clean Water Act was passed.

“A large portion of the waters around New York are cleaner than they have been for 90 years, but there are still problems,” said Stephen Whitehouse, an engineering consultant the city contracted for the project.

Nunziato agrees. “With less dumping of volatile toxins into our waterway and with the water just flushing out naturally, it’s slowly coming back,” he said.

As far as the future goes, Nunziato said he foresees a creek lined with boardwalks that could support kayaking and other water recreation.

But even the current conditions represent a great improvement from years back. Frank Principe, the chairman of the community board, described a new sign of life he observed firsthand in the Dutch Kill section of the creek.

“We have little ducklings floating down on the Kill,” Principe told the community board with grandfatherly pride.

Lest the creek’s dubious history leave room for misinterpretation, Whitehouse added a slight correction: “They were swimming.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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