Magazine article The New Yorker

OLD SPILL; THE WATERFRONT Series: 2/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

OLD SPILL; THE WATERFRONT Series: 2/5

Article excerpt

In the quaint game of rhapsodizing about the city's foul waterways, Newtown Creek is generally a bastard stepsister to the more celebrated Gowanus Canal. The Newtown offers only one point of public access, and it has just one residential building along its banks. But it is much bigger than the Gowanus (three and a half miles long versus one and a half, and wider, too), far more polluted (twenty direct sewage portals all its own), more variably odorous, and, because it serves as the boundary between Brooklyn and Queens, far more peculiar for the fact of its relative obscurity and abandonment. In fact, few may know that the creek is currently home to the largest urban oil spill--seventeen million gallons, which is half again as big as the Exxon Valdez dump--in the history of North America.

Like dual Charons at the river Styx, two enterprising young city councilmen, Eric Gioia, of Long Island City, and David Yassky, of Greenpoint, arranged a boat tour of the creek last Thursday, to mark their commitment to cleaning it up; they'd recently joined a lawsuit, filed by Riverkeeper, the Hudson-watershed advocacy group, to hold ExxonMobil and others accountable. They are merely the latest in a line of government officials who over the years have tried, with varying levels of effort and uniformly little success, to undo the effects of a disastrous chain of events that originated in Greenpoint more than fifty years ago. Fuel from a nearby Standard Oil (now, roughly, ExxonMobil) plant seeped into the city sewers, then ignited. The explosion was so powerful that it sent twenty-five manhole covers flying and released untold amounts of oil into the Brooklyn-Queens aquifer, where the discharge began oozing glacially eastward toward Newtown Creek.

A rickety assemblage of wooden boards at the end of Manhattan Avenue, in Greenpoint, passes for the creek's lone dock. Captain John Lipscomb had tied up his converted lobster boat there, and was in the cabin studying a birder's field guide, as Basil Seggos, an investigator for Riverkeeper, greeted wary passengers. "There's a guy named Vinny who lives just up the street," Seggos said. "He's a big crabber. He feeds his family with it." Seggos held up a bucket-shaped contraption made of chicken wire: one of Vinny's crab traps. Although the state has designated the waterway "precluded" to aquatic life, blue crabs, bluefish, and striped bass apparently inhabit the lower end of the creek. …

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