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Reps want feds to fund Newtown Creek cleanup

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U.S. Reps. Anthony Weiner (D-Forest Hills) and Nydia Velazquez (D-Ridgewood) are calling on the federal Environmental Protection Agency to designate polluted Newtown Creek as a Superfund site, which would make the waterway eligible for federal funding that could cover 90 percent of its cleanup.

The lawmakers wrote a letter to the EPA last week, calling on the agency to add the creek to the Superfund list if environmental tests at the waterway found high levels of toxic chemicals. The creek, which separates western Queens from Brooklyn, is the site of a massive oil spill that is believed to have started anywhere from 50 to 100 years ago.

"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," Velazquez said. "The EPA should use its strongest tools possible to begin remediation. The time to act is now."

An EPA spokeswoman said the agency had received the letter and would review the request.

Superfund sites were designated in 1980 when Congress enacted an environmental law to protect communities from heavily contaminated waste sites that have been abandoned. Congress approved a measure earlier this year that would require the EPA to conduct its own independent study of the oil spill that will be released next year.

The spill, discovered by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter patrol in 1978, is believed to have started at least 50 years ago along the bank of the waterway, where Standard Oil once operated a massive oil refinery.

ExxonMobil, Standard's descendant, entered into two consent orders in 1990 with the state Department of Environmental Conservation to remove petroleum from the ground underneath Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

An Exxon spokesman said the oil giant has removed more than 9.5 million gallons of oil from the site.

A DEC study released last year estimated that the spill could be anywhere between 17 million and 30 million gallons.

Several other oil companies, including BP and Chevron, are also responsible for the cleanup.

Community activists said the cleanup along Newtown Creek is long overdue.

"Newtown Creek demands attention from all levels of government," said Basil Seggos, chief investigator for Tarrytown-based Riverkeeper, which sued the oil giant in 2004 on the grounds that the company was responsible for the spill. "It seems like the creek would be worthy of designation."

Weiner said the cleanup could receive an estimated $15 million in federal funding and that 90 percent of the spill at the creek could be cleaned up if the waterway is designated as a Superfund site.

He said the spill would be completely cleaned up by 2026 at the current rate of oil recovery. But he said the Superfund designation would institute a four-step process that could result in the site's cleanup being completed in eight to 11 years.

The process would involve a one-year cleanup to halt any immediate threats to neighboring communities, a comprehensive investigation of the spill by the EPA, the drafting of a plan by the federal agency to complete the recovery and the actual cleanup.

"Testing [the site] will help us find answers to basic questions about the spill's health risks and give this national environmental disaster national attention."

Reach reporter Nathan Duke by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

Posted 6:39 pm, October 10, 2011
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