Despite NY/NJ Port Authority tests confirming that pollutants in Newtown Creek’s floodwaters were not as detrimental as originally forecast, the water’s overall toxicity remains a grave reason why local officials and environmental activists continue to agitate for storm infrastructure that would better safeguard Greenpoint against extreme weather events in the future.
Without it, they argue, highly contaminated creek water and raw sewage overflows could seep into homes, businesses as well as into the neighborhood’s clean waterways – as evidenced by heavy rain and storm surges last week that submerged much of Greenpoint’s Zone A.
Activists like Kate Zidar, executive director of the Newtown Creek Alliance (NCA), and Councilman Stephen Levin point to Hurricane Sandy as the impetus for a shift in the city’s environmental priorities along Newtown Creek.
“We’ve had two big hurricanes in one year, and this is starting to look like the new normal,” said Levin, referencing Hurricane Irene. “It begs the question, ‘How are we prepared as a city for this type of weather event?’”
Zidar said that as far as Greenpoint is concerned, with storms like Sandy, it isn’t – but by installing proper tools, like tidal gates, residents would have a better chance to not only anticipate storm damages, but also to recover from them.
Four types of infrastructure need to be implemented in Greenpoint and along Newtown Creek, Zidar said: bulkheads and wetlands, which both help sustain the creek’s shoreline; tidal gates on existing storm drains; and a means of delivering information and outreach to the community in the wake of extreme flooding.
However, Zidar admitted that installing more bulkheads, which are large 90-degree-angle barriers erected along shoreline properties to prevent water erosion, is a tricky issue, since they can become major disruptions to the wildlife at existing wetlands. Often there are environmental regulations in place to salvage natural habitats along the shore, explained Zidar, “so [companies] give up, and it perpetuates disinvestment of the waterfront.”
She suggests that the city find a way to construct bulkheads and wetlands as well as tide gates. If the city could simultaneously construct both bulkheads and wetlands, which act as sponges that help absorb rising water, it would definitely be a “win-win” situation, she said.
In addition, because private companies may do things to prepare for storms, such as berm up their bulkheads and sandbag their property, Zidar said, “it is logical to expect the city to do the same.” The most effective avenue for this, she said, would be to install tide gates on storm drains to prevent heavy rain or storm surges from backing up the drains and flooding into the streets.
Officials are unable to produce an exact estimate of how much implementing such types of infrastructure will cost the city, but they all agree that it would be steep.
“Capital is expensive,” said Councilman Levin. “For instance, since 1998, the wastewater treatment upgrades alone have cost $5 billion.”
Neglecting the implementation of such infrastructure could ultimately prove even more costly. While there’s no official estimate of how much flooding from Newtown Creek and the East River will cost, forecasting firm IHS Global Insight has put the total cost from Sandy at $20 billion in property damages and an additional $30 billion in lost business.
“We’d have to make billions and billions of dollars to handle this,” Levin added. “But if we don’t, we’d have to pay billions in damages.”
For longtime Greenpoint resident and environmental activist, Laura Hofmann, the issue of placing a monetary value on public safety is particularly abhorrent – but far worse, she said, is that city agencies like the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) have simply been passive about the issue altogether.
“The city’s response to our concern about the flooding was, ‘Well, when the time comes, we’ll address those issues,’” said Hofmann. “Well, the time came. There’s a lot of damage and people can get sick. So for them not to be working on aggressively addressing the flooding issues is just crazy.”
As of press time, DEP could not be reached for comment about financing issues and allegations of neglect.
“I like to give credit where credit’s due,” conceded Zidar. “Our local DEP staff was exemplary, but on a citywide scale, it’s kind of all relative. I understand attention needs to be focused where the largest number of people are being affected.”
Nevertheless, many Greenpointers agree that investing in storm infrastructure is essential, as it could be a viable route to deterring long-term health risks of contaminated floodwaters flushing into buildings and soaking into furniture, clothing and other items.
Environmentally speaking, though, Zidar said Greenpoint was lucky with Sandy, as most of the floodwaters were the outcome of storm surges and very little combined sewer overflows ended up in the streets.
According to the DEP, the storm surges from Newtown Creek contained none of the more dangerous toxins found in sediment at the bottom of the creek, Assemblyman Joe Lentol stated in a press release.
The toxins and bacteria from raw sewage and industrial pollution have been linked in a study released in September by the Columbia Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory to harmful pathogens that can cause various gastrointestinal and respiratory illnesses.
“However, the water is dirty, so please be safe and protect yourself as you clean up,” Lentol warned.
The NCA has advised on how to clean up the wreckage, which includes wearing boots and gloves, throwing out things in standing water and disinfecting the best you can.
This is exactly what public artist Leon Reid IV has been doing non-stop for the past week, after Sandy submerged his studio at 99 Commercial Street in four feet of floodwater, leaving his tools and artwork to rust, mold and fester in a familiar stench he has become accustomed to over the past 10 years in the artist compound.
Reid estimated that the damage will run him no less than $2,000. He’s learned his lesson, he said, even though he believes that no matter how much he could have prepared, the water would have found its way in.
“I’m just hoping to get my studio back to normal,” he said cheerfully. “This blew everyone’s worst-case scenario. But I didn’t sit around and cry about it. There wasn’t time for that.”
As he continued to clean up, one of his friends, Katherine Lorimer – a Soho artist – asked what changes he would now make to the studio.
“I don’t know,” Reid shrugged. “Build a levee.”