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Surveying the EPA’s role in a changing New York City

How the EPA’s past actions in the clean up of New York City may continue under a new administration

In the 47 years since the Environmental Protection Agency was founded, the agency has helped repair a nation inundated by pollution, toxins, and industrial waste. Here in New York City, it has cleaned rivers and beaches, removed radioactive waste and hazardous chemicals, and supported dozens of community groups dedicated to improving the environment.

But as the current president drafts plans to roll back many of the regulations that empower the agency, many New Yorkers are now contemplating what the future will be for the EPA’s complicated work across all five boroughs.

Adding to these concerns, last week the senate confirmed Scott Pruitt, a longtime foe of the EPA, to be its newest leader, despite unprecedented protests from hundreds of the agency’s current and former employees. In his first speech to the agency, Pruitt—a climate change skeptic who has sued the agency numerous times—presented a vision for the EPA that directly contradicted the core statutes of its mission.

For New York City residents who are still struggling to recover from decades of environmental pollution and neglect, Pruitt’s nomination is a warning of challenging times ahead.

Manhattan skyline in 1974, photographed by Alexander Hope for Documerica.
Courtesy of the National Archives

The EPA first began its work in December 1970, after being created by an executive order from President Richard Nixon. In New York City, where pollution and municipal waste had become seemingly insurmountable challenges, the agency began by issuing strict new air pollution regulations in 1971, with specific advice for the city’s government. The EPA also backed efforts to stop sludge from being dumped into the Atlantic Ocean and promised to help the city convert its energy consumption towards more natural gas.

The following year, the EPA enforced a federal lawsuit against the city aimed at stopping industrial waste from being slopped into city sewers, worked with Congress to halt the city’s practice of dumping garbage at sea, and began issuing regulations for lead-free gasoline and against noise pollution.

One of the more interesting initiatives started by the agency in these early years was Documerica, a program that hired independent photographers to travel the nation, capturing scenes of environmental degradation. Several photographers focused their lenses on New York City, visiting neighborhoods across all five boroughs and providing unique views into the poor condition of the city’s coastline.

Their archive of images explores everything from barges hauling trash out to sea to open landfills being pushed into Jamaica Bay, and show a city suffering from severe environmental neglect.

“The city was really in bad shape,” says Arthur Tress, a Brooklyn-born photographer who was hired to shoot for Documerica in 1973. “There were a lot of abandoned buildings, power plants, abandoned cars. It was a lot of junk.” While working for the agency, Tress documented the city’s changing waterfront, photographing abandoned apartment towers in the Rockaways, the polluted coast of Staten Island, and children playing on Brooklyn’s trash-strewn shores.

“The waterfront at that time was kind of a wild area and a dumping grounds for industrial waste, and the water was very oily,” Tress remembers. “You couldn’t swim and you couldn’t even have a park there … There was nothing on the waterfront. Nothing. It was all rubble.”

Gravesend, Brooklyn dump in 1973, photographed by Arthur Tress for Documerica.
Courtesy of the National Archives

In the current era, the EPA’s best known projects in New York City are its Superfund sites. The Superfund program began in 1980 to oversee the cleanup of some of the nation’s most polluted properties, from toxic rivers to radioactive warehouses.

There are currently 1,337 Superfund sites on the National Priorities List, 85 of which are located in New York State. Three are situated inside New York City—the Gowanus Canal, the Newtown Creek, and the Wolff-Alport Chemical Company in Ridgewood, Queens—and each one is currently in the initial stages of a lengthy cleanup.

Since the Superfund program was founded in 1980, just 32 Superfund sites in New York State have been remediated and removed from the National Priorities List. These include the Radium Chemical Company in Woodside, Queens, which was New York City’s first Superfund site.

Its cleanup began in the 1980s and was, at the time, “the most dangerous toxic-waste removal operation in the nine-year history of the Superfund program,” according to the New York Times. It included a $4 million effort to safely remove “the world's largest known cache of radium-226,” from inside an abandoned one-story warehouse located just 500 feet away from a residential neighborhood.

Newtown Creek, 2012
Photograph by Nathan Kensinger

While the EPA has become expert at addressing these complex Superfund cleanups, local residents are now worried that the current presidential administration might disrupt these intricate processes, undoing years of groundwork.

At the Newtown Creek, where a century of pollution is now on the verge of finally being addressed, “there is still a lot of anxiety that the Federal Superfund cleanup is going to get derailed,” says Willis Elkins, the program manager for the Newtown Creek Alliance. “There is a long road ahead, but that long road is going to be a lot longer if we don’t have a strong Environmental Protection Agency.”

The Newtown Creek was declared a Superfund site in 2010 and in the past seven years has undergone a lengthy investigation into the sources of its pollution. But no actual remediation work has begun at the site yet, in a cleanup process that will take many years to complete.

“What we have heard from the EPA is that there is nothing to indicate that the Newtown Creek cleanup is going to be jeopardized or delayed, and that they are still moving forward as normal,” says Elkins. “It remains to be seen.”

Similar concerns have been raised at the Gowanus Canal, another long-polluted waterway that was also declared a Superfund site in 2010. The cleanup here has already begun, but there are many years of complicated work ahead, which some residents believe only the EPA is capable of completing.

“I think the federal government and the EPA have been a godsend to this community,” says Katia Kelly, a local resident who has documented the transformation of the Gowanus Canal at her website Pardon Me For Asking. “The only agency that ever reached out to the community and really talked science and gave us some real information, was the EPA.… If the cleanup fails, it’s only because of circumstances that are beyond the EPA’s control. Then it’s just leadership. It’s just politics.”

Gowanus Canal, 2009.
Photograph by Nathan Kensinger

Of course, the EPA’s actions in New York City encompass much more than the Superfund program. The agency’s offices in Region 2 have helped facilitate numerous smaller cleanups throughout the city, including an ongoing project at the lead-polluted baseball fields in Red Hook, the remediation of a former white lead factory in Staten Island, and hauling away hazardous chemical waste from an abandoned complex in the Bronx.

The agency’s enforcement wing also plays an active role in the fight against pollution, and in 2016, it fined a Queens cesspool company $900,000 for violating the Clean Water Act after it was caught dumping raw sewage down city manholes.

The agency also has a robust grants program, which supports a wide variety of community initiatives in New York City. In 2015, its Brownfields program provided a $200,000 grant to the South Bronx Economic Development Corporation, while its Environmental Justice Small Grants Program helped fund a GrowNYC rainwater harvesting project in West Harlem, a stormwater runoff initiative by the Friends of Van Cortlandt Park, and efforts by the Eastern Queens Alliance to monitor air pollution from JFK. Many of these projects are chronicled at the EPA’s local blog, Greening the Apple.

These projects would all be hampered by the budget cuts, funding freezes, and staff cutbacks that the current administration has promised, even as employees at the EPA struggle to keep up with the innumerable problems around the city.

“There is a lot of work to be done, and a lot of work that is going on right now, and the professional staff at the EPA has been waterlogged for years,” says Sean Dixon, a staff attorney at Riverkeeper, an organization that has been advocating for cleaner waters in the Hudson River watershed for the past 50 years. “The sheer number of toxic sites throughout all of New York City, with the water pollution problems, the oversight needed to provide clean drinking water for the city, and the 25 million people who rely on New York City’s drinking water system—these are all things that are within the purview of the agency.”

And New York City is just a small part of the EPA’s efforts across the country, as illustrated by their nationwide map of cleanups. As Dixon puts it, “What we have seen here over the years has really been nothing short of remarkable, but we’ve got a long way to go.”

During the early years of the EPA, the waterfront around the New York Harbor was used as a dumping ground, as seen in this photo by Gary Miller, taken for Documerica project in 1973.

Until federal regulations put a halt to it, New York City’s garbage and debris were hauled out to sea and dumped into the water, as seen in this Documerica photo of an ash barge headed out to the Atlantic, taken by Arthur Tress in 1973.

Abandoned cars and other dumped materials along the city’s beaches made the water unsafe to swim in. This Documerica photograph was taken in Breezy Point, Queens, in 1973 by Arthur Tress, in an area that is now a pristine beachfront.

Official enforcement of the Clean Water Act was still being implemented in the early 1970s, leaving locals to create their own unofficial signage, as seen in this 1973 photo of Hawtree Creek, taken by Arthur Tress for Documerica.

Although many of the city’s waterways and beaches have been cleaned up since the 1970s, some have remained just as toxic. The Gowanus Canal, a Superfund site in Brooklyn, is one of the most polluted bodies of water in the United States. The EPA recently began dredging its depths, as part of the first phases of its remediation.

Pollution here comes from both raw sewage flushed out from the city’s antiquated sewer system, and from decades of industrial usage, including long-empty power plants and warehouses. “I think they abandoned some of these sites in the 1930s and 1940s. We are talking about 70, 80 years of not really doing anything to address the pollution that they left behind,” says Katia Kelly, a member of the Community Advisory Group for the Gowanus cleanup.

Oil sheens and fecal matter are a common sight along the canal’s polluted surface. “It would be wonderful if the responsible parties had stepped up decades ago and said ‘Look, we want to make this right for the community,’ but that’s not the way it works,” says Kelly. “The only power that has been able to compel them is the EPA.”

On the Newtown Creek, a federal Superfund site located between Brooklyn and Queens, local residents have struggled for decades to clean up the waterfront. “The community as a whole around the Newtown Creek has been engaged with the EPA since before the designation of the Superfund site,” says Willis Elkins, who is a member of the Community Advisory Group for the Newtown Creek cleanup.

“There have been improvements to water quality over the past 30 years in Newtown Creek,” notes Elkins, who has created several projects for the Newtown Creek Alliance, seeking to bring back birds, fish, and plant life to the waterway. “Despite the fact that the waters are bad now, they are much better than they used to be, 20 years ago. And a lot of that has been driven by Clean Water Act standards.”

Signs of life have become more common around the creek. “Our memory is so short of how bad the pollution was,” says Elkins. “When a power plant appears, you notice the pollution coming from it, but when a power plant disappears, you don’t always notice the lack of pollution.”

At the Wolff-Alport Chemical Company Superfund in Ridgewood, Queens, the EPA is overseeing a cleanup of a less visible form of pollution: radioactive thorium sludge dumped into the city’s sewer system. “We’ve got these really inherent toxicity problems from industry over the years that have to be cleaned up,” says Sean Dixon.

The Wolff-Alport site is one of the most radioactive sites in the city but is just one of many abandoned, polluted industrial remnants that need to be cleaned up. “I have no shortage of ideas for the EPA, of places for them to step in and to step up,” says Dixon. “There’s tons to be done.”

“When you are looking at a system as complex and as densely populated as New York City is,” says Dixon, “having that federal agency, with such a broad mandate and a broad skill set, is pretty vital to the environment of New York City.”

Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City's abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012. "Industrial Twilight," an exhibit of Kensinger’s photographs of Brooklyn’s changing waterfront, is currently being exhibited at the Atlantic Avenue subway station in Brooklyn.

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