The freezing temperatures and unseasonable snow flurry on the first official day of spring—a clear indicator of unsettling climate change—set the stage for the release of Superfund: In The Eye of the Storm, a report issued by elected officials in conjunction with the Center for Health and Environmental Justice outlining the increasing connections between global warming, corporate bankruptcies and the crisis of federal Superfund toxic waste cleanup program. Bundled up in gloves, hats and winter coats, Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, Congressman Anthony Weiner and Councilman Eric Gioia gathered last Thursday morning on the banks of Newtown Creek—the subject of the report—to discuss the potentially dangerous impact of natural disasters on the waterway and the surrounding communities, and to formally call on EPA Administrator Jackson to add it to the Federal Superfund Priorities List.
“Today, we are calling on the EPA to add Newtown Creek to the Federal Superfund list,” Velazquez said. “Time and time again we’ve asked and we’ve begged. For too long this community has been suffering, from chemicals in the water, the oil spill, related respiratory illnesses. And we are here to make the case, one more time, to reinstate polluters pay fees. It is a new day in Washington, and we must protect our air and our water, and we can show our commitment by adding Newtown Creek to the Superfund List.”
Assemblyman Joe Lentol agreed, expressing his hope that state and federal lawmakers will make the right choice, and rally on behalf of Newtown Creek getting a much deserved spot on the Superfund List.
“The struggle to clean up Newtown Creek has been a long one. And it has been a frustrating one. But I often think we can also use this as an inspiration,” Lentol said.
“If anything should be an inspiration for not polluting now, it is looking at the mistakes of our past and how incredibly hard we have to work to fix them. So today we discuss the exciting prospect of designating Newtown Creek an EPA superfund site. It is high time we make this a superfund because this neighborhood and the environment deserve better. I believe Superfund designation can give us that.”
The official report, which will be delivered by 25 organizations across the country to policymakers, serves two main purposes: to get Newtown Creek added the Federal Superfund List, and to inspire legislators to reinstate the polluter pays fee, which would force corporations responsible for polluting the Creek to shoulder the cost of clean-up. The Federal Superfund Program was founded in 1980, and was initially supported by a polluters pay fee, however the most recent polluters pay tax expired in 1995 and Congress decided not to reinstate it. In 1997, the Superfund Trust Fund, a fund dedicated to cleaning up “orphaned” contained upwards of $3.8 billion, but by 2003, the funds were exhausted, and the burden was shifted to taxpayers. According to the report, since 2003 Congress has accumulated approximately $1.2 billion of general funds, collected from taxpayers, to support the Superfund effort, and the EPA has issued additional funding, though for the past five years the budget has been significantly lower than requested.
In addition to a distinct lack of federal funding, the report stresses the necessity for immediate action in the face of rapidly changing weather patterns that pose a threat to communities surrounding all toxic sites like Newtown Creek, which rests between Greenpoint and Long Island City, Queens. Focusing on case studies—Hurricane Katrina and its effects on surrounding areas; Tar Creek Site in Pitcher, Oklahoma, which was hit with a major tornado in May, 2008 that resulted in poisonous dust containing zinc, lead and other metals to cascade into surrounding water sources, poisoning 62% of the town’s children; severe flooding in Milo Creek, Idaho, which washed toxic waste from a nearby mining site onto 50 homes; the Gurley Pit Superfund Site in Arkansas, a 15-mile bayou which was flooded in 1980, causing 500,000 gallons of waste material containing oil, PCBs and heavy metals to surge into the homes of surrounding residents—the report sheds light on potential dangers the toxins in the creek pose to surrounding communities in the event of a natural disaster.
“Newtown Creek is a real-life example of how climate change poses unknown and potentially catastrophic threats to contaminated sites,” said Katie Schmid, Director of the Newtown Creek Alliance in a prepared statement. “Rising sea levels and changes in the watertable will threaten already crumbling bulk heads and force contamination to migrate in unpredictable ways that would expose people to harm….Tens of thousands of people work and live in proximity to the contamination present in and near Newtown Creek.”
At Thursday’s press conference, Congressman Weiner also emphasized the dire need to clean the Creek quickly and swiftly in order to avoid sistuations like these.
“Superfund is a misnomer,” Weiner said. “It should be called the disappointing fund, or the below-average fund. We are here to start reversing the process…For too long, we have allowed the Newtown Creek scandal, and we are going to solve these problems once and for all. We will no longer say that the next generation will have to deal with this environmental crisis, seething under our feet.”
Newtown Creek has long been known as a site of environmental disaster, where ExxonMobil spilled, over the course of more than 40 years, roughly 30 million gallons of oil into the Creek. A lawsuit is currently underway, though Exxon Mobil insists that they are committed to the cause of cleaning the Creek.
“ExxonMobil takes its environmental responsibilities seriously. We are prepared to work with the EPA, the State, New York City and all other potentially responsible parties to address the situation in Newtown Creek,” a represented said in a prepared statement. “ExxonMobil supports a comprehensive investigation of current environmental conditions…and are publicly committed to remain in Greenpoint until the remediation effort is done—and done right.”
In the immediate future, the EPA is conducting a series of tests on the Creek to determine whether it is eligible for Superfund. A team will take water and sediment samples, as well as collect anecdotal information about the various uses of the creek including fishing and boating, etc.
“A whole generation of New Yorkers and Americans has failed to be environmental stewards,” Gioia said in his closing remarks. “And Newtown Creek is a perfect example. But all that is about to change.”
Commenting is closed for this article.All Articles
Type your name and email address below, then click "Submit" to be added to our spam-free email list.