by Alyssa Leavy | Zoom Out Mycology
Who cares about water pollution? We do! We do!
Little Lisa, the outspoken voice of morality in the Simpson family, made her debut as an environmental advocate in 1992 in the episode “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish.” The episode features Blinky; a three-eyed fish caught in a polluted river, similar to the one pictured below, behind the Springfield nuclear power plant. Lisa struggles with the injustice that the owner of the plant, who had been dumping toxic waste, won’t answer for this mutagenic atrocity. However, when Marge serves Blinky’s head on a silver platter during a publicity stunt on Mr. Burns’ campaign trail, it costs him the mayoral election. (Simpsons World)
Since then, Blinky the Fish has served as a reminder to “stand before the people you fear and speak your mind - even if your voice shakes;” (source) to hope for justice, and to never underestimate Marjorie Jacqueline Bouvier Simpson. Serving to commemorate Blinky’s noble sacrifice and message, I managed to convince my fiancé to let me hang a silkscreen print of Blinky, created by yours truly, in our studio apartment’s “library.”
Welcome to Brooklyn
Although the river in the episode is fictitious, there are plenty of very real waterways whose inhabitants suffer from anthropogenic pollution. One that I'm very familiar with is the Newtown Creek that runs between Brooklyn and Queens. This creek is considered a superfund site, meaning government intervention is needed in the cleanup efforts. (EPA)
The water is typically cloudy with a film on the surface and floating garbage (most often plastic grocery bags). Occasionally the creek takes on a strangely beautiful, albeit unnatural, purple sheen, but oil slicks can be spotted almost daily. A nice surprise is to see ducks bobbing by, fish darting through to the East River or seagulls perching on posts along the banks. Although these sights are a rarity, until a few years ago they were non-existent.
What’s in the creek?
The creek did not become polluted overnight. The accumulation of 140 years of waste discharge peaked at 17 to 30 million gallons of oil and refining products. This volume was considered one of the most massive “spills” in history. (EPA) To put this in perspective, the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill in March 1989 was 10.8 million gallons, about a third of amount in Newtown Creek if higher estimates are correct. (Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council) This discharge has affected 55 acres of Greenpoint property surrounding ExxonMobil, Chevron/Texaco, and BP refining operations. Since 1978, 12.9 million gallons of those oil products have been recovered from the soils beneath Greenpoint and the waters of Newtown Creek (as of March 2017) thanks to efforts from ExxonMobil. That success can also be attributed to oil companies getting sued by the state (NY Times) and pressure from the Newtown Creek Alliance (NCA), Riverkeepers, and the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to speed up remediation efforts. (Newtown Creek Alliance)
In addition to oil leaching into the creek, Combined Sewage Overflows (CSO) are also contributing to the water pollution problem here in Greenpoint. The Newtown Wastewater Treatment plant, which as its name implies is located on the Newtown Creek, is responsible for processing all the sewage, including rainwater, in New York City. The plant becomes overwhelmed during heavy rains and whatever cannot be treated is discharged into the creek.
Chemicals, Metals & Organic Pollutants
Over 50 refineries including oil refineries, petrochemical plants, fertilizer and glue factories, sawmills, and lumber and coal yards were in operation along the creek. Contaminants from these industries were released into the local soil and water years ago, but are still present today. The infographic below compares the acceptable threshold level of specific contaminants to the highest concentrations found in sediment samples. Contaminants include metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and pesticides like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT).
For more information about the health effects of these compounds, please refer to section 7 of my previous post, Explanations to 11 Soil Pollution Questions for Environmentalists. Although the post outlines human health hazards, wildlife is also impacted by the contaminants. Adverse side effects to benthic (deep water or bottom-dwelling) invertebrates include death, reduced species diversity, and infertility. (DEC)
How does this affect New York City residents?
Activities and diet
For those of you courageous enough to brave the E. Coli ridden waters of New York City in your bathing suits, scuba gear, canoes, and windsurfers, it is highly recommended that you avoid “full body immersion.” The warning from the New York State Department of Health sites biological contaminants and physical hazards, such as underwater debris and commercial boat traffic, as the culprits. (Department of Health)
In addition, there is a fish consumption advisory that states which fish you can consume safely on a weekly or monthly basis. Specific concerns were highlighted for children and women under 50. In my personal opinion, I would probably give strong consideration to a well-plated mud pie over a fish caught in the Newtown Creek, but to each their own.
Although black mayo sounds like an exotic condiment for fresh catch, in reality, it is a not-so-endearing term given to the sludge at the bottom of the creek. It is a combination of the chemicals, sewage, liquid tar, petroleum products and decomposed organic matter. (Brownstoner) Remediation efforts are in place to address pollution in the water, but the sediment is far more toxic. Contaminants that have settled and become concentrated in this “black mayo” continue to diffuse substances into the water with each rain or passing barge. Considering industrial activity on the banks of the creek has not ceased, barges, tugs, and boats meandering through the area are a regular occurrence.
(EPA's Gowanus Canal Group) Core sample from the former 1st Street Basin beside the BRT Power Station at 40 feet below grade
How do we make it better?
Reading this article is a big step in the right direction. To continue on that path, I recommend following the Newtown Creek Alliance (NCA) and the watchdog organization, Riverkeepers. Details about remediation projects can be found on the NCA’s website and snapshots of day to day events are on the Instagram pages for the NCA and Riverkeepers.
Another way to promote awareness is to visit the Newtown Creek Nature Walk. Most access to the water is blocked by industries that own properties bordering the creek, but the Nature Walk gives visitors a chance to enjoy the creek. I would not be surprised if the physical disconnect from this waterway is a major reason so few people realize the level of pollution that has occurred over the years. When I walked the Walk a few weeks ago, I appreciated the beauty of the local foliage that was still in bloom. If you check it out, you can even descend a set of stone steps that lead right into the water. Despite the greenery, paths, and park benches, you can’t forget you're in an industrial area. The view directly across from the pier is a barge moored on the opposite bank. It’s loaded with crushed cars and two cranes were in full swing, passing vehicles back and forth. Industry is still alive and well in Greenpoint. My hope is that the juxtaposition of nature and corporate is an indicator of balance for the area’s residents, but as most locals know, that’s not always the case.
Curb Your Usage
Recently I signed up for text alerts from the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant by texting the word “join” to their CSO alert line at 646-576-7448 (text ‘leave’ to unsubscribe). These automatic alerts will notify you of peak times that result in sewage overflow. During high flows, you can help by avoiding water use if possible. Options are to abide by the “if it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down” principle or delaying showering and washing dishes until heavy rains have passed. Additionally, anyone can report a real-time CSO event too with the SMS system. Text ‘report’ followed by a description of the event. Include details like where and when you saw untreated sewage water entering the creek.
One way to avoid overflows during peak hours is to use a rain garden to filter rainwater during storms. Although this idea isn’t very practical in New York City due to space constraints and limited amounts of precious greenery that we covet for outdoor activities, it is possible in other areas. Zoom Out Mycology assisted the non-profit organization NJ Tree Foundation in planting a rain garden for West Side Park in Newark, NJ. Check out the gallery below to see Zoom Out Mycology founder, Bashira Muhammad, and fellow volunteers clearing an area for the garden and planting trees and shrubs to aid water filtration. In suburban and rural settings, this is an effective solution to avoid sewage overflows from contaminating local waterways and drinking water.
There are two ways you can vote: elections and consumption choices. Every dollar you spend is a vote for the world you want to live in. It can be challenging and at times overwhelming to make ethical consumption choices, especially when you don’t even know what to avoid. In this particular case of water pollution, I would recommend avoiding or limiting fossil fuel products whenever you can; walk, bike, take the train, carpool, lower your heat and throw on a sweater. We’re all familiar with using these techniques to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but you can feel your efforts and sacrifices are doubly worthwhile when you know they’re also reducing direct water pollution.
The most obvious way to vote though is in your local elections. You can vote for the Green Party or at least for candidates that don’t openly endorse petrochemical companies or that won’t try to dismantle the EPA. It would be best to avoid politicians like Scott Pruitt, the current EPA administrator, who is taking the teeth out of the EPA. He has backed off on enforcement and is collecting less in penalties, meaning cleanup efforts will either not have the funding they need to proceed or taxpayers will wind up footing the bill instead of the responsible parties. (Politico) So in every elections, please turn out and turn up - every vote counts.
About the Author:
Sprogis, Kaspars. “Recap of "The Simpsons" Season 6 Episode 12.” Recap Guide, recapguide.com/recap/117/The-Simpsons/season-6/episode-12/.
“Another Superfund Site in New York City: Newtown Creek to Get a Makeover.” State of the Planet, 7 Oct. 2010, blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2010/09/30/another-superfund-site-in-new-york-city-newtown-creek-to-get-a-makeover/.
“Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish | season 2 episode 4.” Simpsons World, 22 Dec. 2017, www.simpsonsworld.com/video/260537411822.
“Maggie Kuhn Quotes.” BrainyQuote, Xplore, www.brainyquote.com/quotes/maggie_kuhn_389567.
“Types of Contaminated Sites.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 9 Mar. 2017, www.epa.gov/enforcement/types-contaminated-sites.
Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. “Questions and Answers about the Spill.” Oil Spill Facts - Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, www.evostc.state.ak.us/index.cfm?FA=facts.QA.
Navarro, Mireya. “Exxon Mobil Settles State Suit on Newtown Creek Cleanup.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 Nov. 2010, www.nytimes.com/2010/11/18/nyregion/18newtown.html.
“Greenpoint Oil Spill.” Newtown Creek Alliance, www.newtowncreekalliance.org/greenpoint-oil-spill/.
The United States Department of the Interior, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in their capacity as Trustees of Natural Resources. PREASSESSMENT SCREEN for NEWTOWN CREEK, BROOKLYN AND QUEENS, NEW YORK. Retrieved from https://www.fws.gov/northeast/nyfo/ec/files/Newtown%20PAS%20Sept2012Final.pdf
“Department of Health.” Newtown Creek, www.health.ny.gov/environmental/investigations/newtown/.
Hubert, Craig. “What Exactly Is the Black Mayonnaise at the Bottom of the Gowanus Canal?” Brownstoner, 13 Nov. 2017, www.brownstoner.com/development/gowanus-canal-black-mayonnaise-superfund-epa-cleanup-brooklyn/.
“Brian Carr.” Brian Carr - Another photo from EPA's files: a core from..., www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=350103158356442&set=g.195975002808&type=3&theater.
GuillÉn, Alex, and Emily Holden | 11/19/17 05:00 AM EDT. “What EPA chief Scott Pruitt promised - and what he's done.” POLITICO, www.politico.com/interactives/2017/scott-pruitt-promises/.
Zoom Out Mycology’s Environmental Awareness blog strives to explain and expose environmental topics and concerns to a wide audience. Our team consists of a diverse group of scientists, policy experts, and engineers that help describe the science behind environmental issues that you see in the news and experience in your daily life. We hope that this knowledge will help all of our readers embrace a healthy and sustainable lifestyle! If you are interested in being a guest contributor, please email us at: email@example.com