Shootout at Newtown Creek
Krysia Holowacz knows dirty. A former resident of Eastern Europe who emigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s, she has seen what industrial pollution can do to a once pristine landscape.
So when she drives her car down a semi-paved street that dead-ends 12 feet above the blackened waters of Newtown Creek, the waterway that separates Greenpoint from Long Island City, it's hard not to notice the awe.
"Can you believe this?" asks Holwacz, rising out of the car, holding her arms wide, and struggling to be heard over a pair of cranes lifting demolished cars off a nearby scrap metal barge.
The view is, indeed, awe-inspiring. Picture the Thames River at its Dickensian worst, only replace the tanneries and rendering plants with asphalt recovery and waste transfer stations, and you'll get a pretty good idea. Fortunately, it's a view few New Yorkers ever experience. Nearly two centuries of continuous industrial development and the quirky street patterns of the Brooklyn-Queens border combine to make this one of the least-accessible portions of the city.
That's one reason Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in a radio address earlier this month, offered Newtown Creek as a compromise site for a new 1,100 megawatt TransGas Energy power plant. Originally slated for the East River side of the neighborhood, the plant has drawn stiff opposition from local groups and environmental advocates who would like to see the East River waterfront cleaned up.
Savvy Compromise, Or Devil's Bargain
Politically speaking, the mayor's compromise is a savvy move. Exchanging one site for another opens up the two mile Williamsburg-Greenpoint waterfront to residential redevelopment -- a move the mayor thinks will lure billions of dollars into the local economy. At the same time, it offers an easy solution to the city's pressing energy needs.
But for local activists like Holawacz, who lives in Greenpoint, the compromise is an environmental equivalent of the devil's bargain: As much as she wants a clean riverfront with more open space for parks, Holowacz, a community liaison for the Newtown Creek Water Pollution Control Plant who already fields plenty of complaints over that plant's ongoing expansion, recoils at the thought of adding yet another source of toxic emissions to this already-beleaguered corner of Greenpoint.
"This community is inundated," says Holowacz. "We get all the smell and all the paper and all the scrap metal. You can't put everything the city needs into one corner."
Officially, the decision on where to put the TransGas plant isn't the mayor's to make. That power resides at the state level, where Governor George Pataki has expressed support for new power plants as a way to meet the city's surging energy demand and decrease dependence on the regional grid. In May, the mayor's office threw its weight behind the neighborhood groups and developers who have opposed the siting of a power plant near Bushwick Inlet on the grounds that it would foil ongoing efforts to redevelop the Greenpoint-Williamsburg riverfront from industrial to residential use.
"This administration recognizes the need for new power plants and transmission lines," noted Daniel Doctoroff, deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding, in a July 15 editorial for the Daily News. "[But] when a power plant comes into conflict with a historic chance to rezone the waterfront to develop a 2-mile waterside walkway and create much-needed housing (both affordable and market-rate), it is in the city's best interest to find a more suitable location to benefit all parties."
In the final week of September, the mayor's office thought it had just that when it talked ExxonMobil, current owner of a derelict storage facility located on Kingsland Ave. a half mile downstream from the Kosciusko Bridge, into possibly selling the lot to TransGas as an alternate site.
Site Of Large Oil Spill
The deal is a tenuous one. The new site carries heavy legal baggage. In the 1950s and 1960s it was the site of the nation's largest underground oil spill; more than 17 million gallons seeped out of tanks and pipes and into an underground aquifer, a multi-year discharge that wasn't detected until the Coast Guard noticed a major oil plume in the creek in the late 1970s. In 1989 Mobil (now ExxonMobil) assumed cleanup responsibilities but according to an August report in the Polish Daily News has removed only about two million gallons to date. At that rate, the site will be fully remediated by 2030.
"You're talking about a discharge larger than the Exxon Valdez," says Riverkeeper legal investigator Basil Seggos, likening the 52-acre site to the famous 11 million gallon oil spill in Alaska in 1991. "You're not just talking about water pollution. You're talking about hydrostatic pressure of a new plant and trucks possibly extending the plume.
Neighborhood activists have concerns beyond underground oil. For the last 15 years, Greenpoint and Williamsburg residents have been united in their effort to rezone and redevelop the two-mile East River waterfront. To accommodate this rezoning, they agreed to leave new industrial development along Newtown Creek.
"Every city has an industrial area, and we decided that is our industrial area," says Joe Vance, co-chair of the Greenpoint Waterfront Association for Parks and Planning. "We'd certainly like to see the pollution cleaned up, but we'd like to keep that area industrial. The city needs the jobs. There are lots of really good companies, there. We don't want to see them go."
Dividing The Community
At the same time, Vance and other rezoning advocates fear the psychological impact of adding a power plant to a neighborhood that is already dealing with the expansion of the Newtown Creek sewage treatment facility. Soon to be the city's largest, the plant and its many odors have already prompted grumbles over residents on one side of the neighborhood selling out their poorer neighbors on the other.
"What you're doing is dividing the community along McGuiness Avenue," says Community Board 1 rezoning task force chairman Christopher Olechowski. "If [the mayor's plan] goes forward, it sets up kind of an imbalance in the community. It favors a waterfront rezone for market rate development but leaves the other side of the community as sort of a second tier segment."
For this reason, community activists and their environmental allies around the city have been hesitant to endorse the mayor's compromise. Still, Olechowski says even silence can come across as a tacit endorsement compared to the relative outcry over the East River site.
"I haven't heard any strong voices from any of the elected officials saying, 'We won't tolerate this,'" Olechowski says. "Maybe it's something I've missed, but I haven't seen it, yet."
David Yassky, the councilmember whose district includes Greenpoint, opposes the original siting plan but has yet to give the mayor's compromise proposal much thought.
"If somebody wants to put a power plant on the Exxon Mobil site they're going to have to file hundreds of pages of documents on what the environmental impact's going to be," Yassky says. "At this point, it really isn't far enough along for me to be able to comment."
Neighborhood activists and environmental groups, meanwhile, are trying to make sure the issue doesn't get to that point. Riverkeeper is set to announce a fresh series of lawsuits aimed at companies it says are currently the leading polluters along Newtown Creek. Neighborhood activists, meanwhile, are recycling the same arguments used against the original plant site.
"Why not upgrade existing power plants just like they're upgrading the sewer plant?" says Holowacz, noting that a number of local, oil-burning plants could gain increased efficiency while reducing toxic emissions if they switched to natural gas as a fuel source. "It's basically the same law, and yet they're not doing it."
With the recent blackout, however, energy companies like TransGas hold a momentary edge. The city's demand for power is growing, and August's power outage will still be fresh in minds of voters going to the polls next November. Even though the outage was the result of supply problems outside the city, the time has never been better, politically at least, to push for local plants.
Vance says the neighborhood still has the strength to hold its ground even without the real estate developers that helped foil the East River site.
"Greenpoint used to be the weakest link," he says. "Politicians looking at a map wondering where they could put something and get the least fallout always pointed here. That began to change in 2000 with the ConEd/Keyspan plant vote."
At the same time, Vance says, it will take a concerted effort to make sure that neighbors who see riverfront redevelopment as a community-wide issue also see Newtown Creek's overloaded banks in a similar light.
"People throw around the term 'Not In My Backyard'," Vance says. "But the East River was our front yard, and we can't put anything more in the backyard, because it's full. I challenge anybody to find any community in the city that has more citywide projects like this."
Sam Williams is a freelance journalist living in New York City.