Kayaking New York’s Newest Superfund Site
I grew up with boats, canoeing the upper Hudson River and its tributaries, kayaking Maine’s coast, portaging canoes between Adirondack lakes and sailing Vermont’s varied winds. But in seven years of living in New York City, surrounded by water, I never once shipped off shore, save for some ferry rides. Blame it on the difficulty of storing and transporting a vessel while living car-free in walk-up apartments.
One solution lies with the handful of boathouses and clubs offering free kayak programs, tours and rental storage around the city to get more New Yorkers on the water. Another solution lies with creative, inexpensive ways to do it yourself. One friend solved the storage problem by chaining his rowboat to a fencepost on a deserted industrial street near the water. Having earned the property owner’s tacit approval, this free storage system seemed to be working well until a boat thief made off with his metal dinghy one night. Another friend turned to inflatable kayaks as a more maneuverable, less theft-prone alternative. Inexpensive and collapsible, these kayaks pack into duffel bags he can easily store in his apartment and carry by bicycle, bus or subway.
This past weekend, he took me on my inaugural voyage into New York City waters, a cold and windy exploration of Newtown Creek, one of America’s most polluted waterways. We paddled up to the creek’s opening at the East River, observing the plastic detritus that washes up on the shore. From the water we watched runners pass over the Pulaski Bridge, the halfway point of the NYC Marathon. Further down, we explored Whale Creek to the sounds of a trumpet player practicing in the Newtown Creek Nature Walk. His music drifted across the water to the opposite shore where it was drowned out by the sound of dozens of Fresh Direct trucks idling in a parking lot. As we turned back under the bridge, a police officer yelled down, sarcastically reminding us not to drink the water, a joke we had already heard from some passing fishermen that day.
It’s an interesting time in the life of Newtown Creek. Earlier this fall, it was officially designated a Superfund site to remediate a history of pollutants, including an oil spill three times bigger than the Exxon Valdez spill and decades of unregulated dumping. Billions of gallons of raw sewage are still discharged into the creek from combined sewage overflows when storm water overwhelms the antiquated sewer system. These are massive environmental problems that impact hundreds of thousands of people in surrounding neighborhoods and it will require massive resources to address the contamination and hold polluters responsible. Though the process could take a decade, local groups are making plans to reconnect with the cleaned-up creek.
The Greenpoint Waterfront Association for Parks and Planning, a coalition of more than 40 neighborhood organizations, has put forth a plan to build a new boathouse on the ground floor of the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, located next to the creek at the north end of Manhattan Avenue. The project would rebuild a crumbling bulkhead and create an esplanade, environmental education center, boat launch, training center and storage facility. The Greenpoint Boathouse is one of 26 projects vying for funding from a $7 million Newtown Creek mitigation fund being administered by the City Parks Foundation. Sometime in the next week, CPF will open a voting process for project funding. But if you can’t wait that long to speak out for access to the creek, the Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee is holding a meeting tomorrow night to discuss the City’s plans to limit recreational boating in light of the Superfund designation.
Although recreational boating may not be at the top of most people’s concerns, access to the water is as important as access to parks and other types of open space. Furthermore, sustaining recreational use of Newtown Creek now and throughout the Superfund process will help further the community support and advocacy necessary to ensure the waterway’s cleanup and redevelopment are carried out with the highest standards.
Photos by Will Sherman