Times Newsweekly Editorial

Credit Due For Creek Cleanup

Slowly but surely, the plan to clean the fetid Newtown Creek is coming together, infused with cash from the corporate giants that polluted it for decades.

Last week, as this paper reported, the bankrupt Getty Corporation agreed to pay the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) $16 million for its share of the damage, caused by fuel and chemical leaks from the tanks at its creekside facility.

The company is just one of many the EPA is pursuing to cover cleanup costs for the creek, which was previously declared a Superfund site. The government is outlaying the money needed to remediate the contamination, but the businesses deemed responsible will soon pay for their share of the blame.

For decades, the public knew how damaged the Newtown Creek was; the pollution first came to light in 1978, when officers in a helicopter flying over the waterway reported seeing oil flow out of a bulkhead.

But the impetus to clean up the creek only began nine years later, in 1987, when the city Sanitation Department proposed building a garbage incinerator in Maspeth, a short distance from the waterway.

A gathering of engineers and government representatives came to a July 1987 meeting at Community Board 5 to present their idea for Maspeth, since the area was industrial and manufacturing and had little or no residences in its immediate proximity.

The representatives made a very intelligent and compelling presentation to the small group from Community Board 5 that was gathered. They claimed burning garbage at very high temperatures in facilities equipped with towering smokestacks would not impact surrounding neighborhoods.

Following their presentation came Frank Principe, a resident of Maspeth, a successful local businessman and, at that time, a new Board 5 member. In his usual quiet manner, he pulled out a large map of the Board 5 area, and proceeded to explain to those present the imminent dangers of an incinerator in the Maspeth area of Newtown Creek.

With a host of information at his fingertips to prove his theory he explained that the area designated for the smokestack was in a low point of the topography. He further showed how the top of the smokestack would almost be level with the surrounding areas which rose in height around Newtown Creek.

“It’s like putting a candle in the bottom of a deep soup bowl where the flame would be level with the rim,” he explained to the host of representatives, who were busy shuffling papers looking for information that apparently wasn’t given to them before their presentation.

To add just one more hammer blow, Frank introduced his guest, a retired Fire Department deputy chief who spent many years working on both the Brooklyn and Queens sides of Newtown Creek. He reported on the many fires that seemed to emanate on top of the water in Newtown Creek, adding that there were large oil tanks under the water which oozed gasoline and all other sorts of nasty things into the Creek.

“Putting an incenerator in this location is like lighting a match while pumping gas into a car,” the chief said. “The explosion that would probably happen would be like a fireworks show on the Fourth of July.”

The Maspeth incinerator plan was scrapped, and the city owes a great debt to Principe and company for striking the first blows in a battle for cleaner air and water in New York City.

Principe died in 2004, and we can only hope his descendants and future generations will get to see a Newtown Creek cleansed of the damage that reckless industries inflicted on it for decades.

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