The Quest to Clean Up Coney Island Creek, Part 2: Long Road to Superfund Status

Polluted from both its industrial past and the city’s present-day sewer system, community leaders have pushed for years to get Coney Island Creek included on either New York State or the federal government’s Superfund lists. But it hasn’t been easy.

Nina Dietz

Condos and luxury apartmens in the Seagate neighborhood sit behind the jutting beach of Coney Island Creek Park.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of three stories examining the history of pollution and calls for remediation at Coney Island Creek. The third will be published Friday.
Read Part 1: Industrial Past Collides with a Superstorm

The dark stinking sludge slinked through Coney Island Creek for years, giving off a distinctly fecal smell. Carmen Rivera knows better than to walk by the bridge on rainy days. The 58-year-old is quick to share the wisdom she’s gained from living in Coney Island all her life.

In addition to its history as an industrial hub, the creek in more recent years has faced another threat: the city’s combined sewer system.  Rivera knows how to avoid the outflow pipes that release a noxious runoff when the water treatment plants get overwhelmed by storms.

For decades, community members have called for a cleanup of Coney Island Creek, citing its popularity as a fishing and recreational spot. But securing that commitment has proven a difficult and drawn out process.

In the winter, the creek doesn’t smell too bad, according to Rivera. But, “under the Cropsey Avenue bridge, the water still runs black,” she said.

A round of political hot potato

In 2015, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) shared initial Coney Island Creek data as part of a collaborative plan with the city to study, and then limit, the amount of sewage released from combined sewer overflows—when heavy rain overruns the city’s sewer system, causing contaminants to spill into local waterways.

There was enough fecal bacteria—the measure for sewage contamination—found in samples from dry days in that preliminary data that the city did sewer tracing to find the source. It shared the findings with the DEC, which posted them to the state’s water quality alert system in late August of 2016.

But the city and DEC didn’t release a statement about the pollution until October, when they revealed the source of the contamination: 15 apartment buildings had been illegally hooked up to the storm drain system. This meant that over 200,000 gallons of raw sewage was pouring out of one of the combined sewer outflows and into the creek—a popular spot for fishing and local church baptisms—every single day. It was left to Brooklyn Community Board 13, the local community board, to inform residents about the fecal contamination.

In the years since, as they await remediation, the board has repeatedly put up signs cautioning against eating fish from the creek, though members say those warnings are largely ignored. “Everybody is still going to keep doing the same things they’re doing in that creek. They’re still swimming in it. They’re still getting baptized in it, and they’re still eating the fish from it,” said Ida Sanoff, a longtime member of Brooklyn CB13. “And that’s just gonna keep on happening.”

In January of 2017, while the DEC was still figuring out how to deal with the illegal hookups, the community board asked the regulatory agency to investigate Coney Island Creek for inclusion on the New York State Registry of Inactive Hazardous Waste Disposal Sites. The registry is used to keep track of, and eventually clean up, places where large amounts of hazardous waste has been spilled or dumped. Inclusion would make the creek eligible for a state-level Superfund designation, marking the site as a top priority for remediation.

But on Feb. 22, 2017, the community board received an official response letter from Robert Schick, the former director of the Division of Environmental Remediation, informing them that the DEC doesn’t list individual bodies of water on its registry as a matter of policy “unless such waterbodies have been first listed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency,” (EPA) on its own National Priorities List.

This meant that if the community board wanted the site included on the registry, it would first need to approach federal officials to study and determine if it was hazardous enough to be listed as a federal Superfund. This placed the Coney Island community in a double bind of sorts: At the time, President Donald Trump’s administration was pursuing major slashes to the EPA’s budget, including a 25 percent cut for the Superfund program.

Jeffrey Sanoff, Brooklyn CB13’s environment and sanitation committee chair, sent an impassioned letter on behalf of the board at the time, pleading with the DEC to reconsider.

“Given the new administration in Washington and the planned cuts to the EPA, Superfund designation may be impossible,” Sanoff wrote. “Meanwhile, issues in the Creek pose significant health threats to the community that must be addressed. What are we supposed to do in the meantime?” The DEC never addressed Sanoff’s concerns.

According to Brian Carr, a long time EPA lawyer specializing in Superfund law, contaminated sites are in most cases first referred to the local or state agency by the community. After initial review, if the state decides that a site is beyond its purview, it is referred to the EPA for assessment and consideration for the National Priorities List.

However, in some cases—if there is no state or municipal environmental agency, or the state agency doesn’t see the site as a priority—the federal designation can happen first. “There’s a provision in Superfund that allows the public to petition the EPA to list a site,” said Carr, citing an EPA investigation into New Jersey’s Hackensack River as an example.

But such requests from the public are often taken less seriously by the feds than sites proposed by the state, because they haven’t yet been vetted by another agency. In the case of Coney Island Creek, with New York State refusing to evaluate the waterway as a matter of policy, the community was left to request a federal evaluation on its own.

Adi Talwar

In 2016, city investigators found more than a dozen buildings encompassing nearly 1,000 homes whose sewage was running into Coney Island Creek via an illicit connection.

A slow process 

Federal Superfund sites are the most polluted in the country, usually places where pollution has built up for decades or is the result of a horrible one-off hazardous waste spill. To make it on the National Priorities List, a site needs to be among the worst of the already badly-polluted Superfund sites, which are given scores to see if they qualify.

Using a formula called the Hazard Ranking System, the EPA looks at the type of pollution present and categorizes it into four ways people could come into contact with those pollutants. From there, the formula considers things like population density, potential risk of exposure and how hazardous a contaminant is.

A site can bypass the National Priorities List if the polluter takes responsibility and agrees to an EPA-approved clean up. But figuring out who is responsible for environmental damage at a given site, and forcing them to pay up, can be a daunting task, often falling to a team of well-trained EPA lawyers.

It wasn’t always like this, according to Walter Hang, an environmental activist and the president and founder of Toxic Targeting, an environmental database and analytics firm.

“There’s no funding anymore,” said Hang. The Superfund budget for 1981, the first fiscal year the program existed, was $1.6 billion, or nearly $6 billion in 2023 dollars. The Superfund budget for 2023 is just $1.2 billion, with an additional $215 million in funding for programs to clean up contaminated sites that don’t qualify for the National Priorities List.

The Superfund program now has less funding than it did in 1981, even without adjusting for inflation. “So,” as Hang said, “there’s no money.”

Sites are left in limbo without the necessary funding to fully remediate them. In the meantime, the EPA is trying to prevent accumulating any more sites on their backlog, according to Hang. When the Superfund act was first created, it was only supposed to take five years to clean up all of the sites eligible for the National Priorities List, which in 1982 included 418 EPA-proposed sites.

There have been 1,792 Superfund sites on the National Priorities List in the 40 years since its creation. There are currently 1,336 sites in need of remediation, meaning only 456 sites have been fully cleaned up over the program’s history. More than 250 of the sites from the original 1982 list are still actively awaiting clean up.

Part of a larger pattern

It is significant, given its massive population, coastal geography and heavily industrial past, that there aren’t more National Priorities List Superfund sites in New York City. There have only been five, and four of those have been listed since 2010.

For comparison, the two counties that make up Long Island—Nassau and Suffolk—together account for 35 former or current Superfund sites, the majority of which were listed in the late 1980s to early 90s. The combined populations of Nassau and Suffolk counties is under 3 million people, whereas New York City has a population of nearly 9 million as of 2023.

Samara Swanson, a former EPA region 2 Superfund lawyer and legislative counsel for the New York City Council’s Environmental Protection Committee, said that in the early years of the Superfund Act, the EPA prioritized contaminated drinking water, especially from groundwater. “No water, no life,” she explained of the program’s earlier priorities. “If there’s contamination, obviously, you can’t stay there.”

It wasn’t until the EPA revised the Hazard Ranking System in late 1990 that New York City sites became eligible for the National Priorities List. It would be another 20 years before the first, Gowanus Canal, received its designation in 2010. 

Adi Talwar

The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, the first site in New York City to get Superfund designation in 2010.

But that designation wasn’t easily achieved. The city opposed the move, going so far as to petition the state to withdraw the canal from National Priorities List consideration. The only reason the site reached the EPA’s notice in the first place was because community members petitioned their federal representatives for its inclusion.

Early in his administration, Mayor Michael Bloomberg sought to revitalize the New York City waterfront, rezoning many of its former manufacturing hubs for high density residential. It was only during the increased scrutiny of those rezonings that experts and community members alike began to get a sense of the full extent of contamination in the city’s historically industrial areas.

According to federal rules, the parties responsible for contamination have to pay for the cleanup of a Superfund site. This is another reason the city fought so hard against the designation, said Swanson: As some of the pollution at Gowanus came from city-owned utilities, New York City was potentially on the hook for a portion of the bill. “We were partially responsible for creating those sites. And as a result, we would have to pay,” she said.

Lisa Bloodgood, an environmentalist who has worked on multiple Superfund sites in the city, agreed. Bloomberg did not want Gowanus “to become [a] Superfund site. And he did try to have influence over the process, to keep it out of the federal spotlight because it makes everything more expensive, and it really doesn’t look good.”

It was a moot point, however, since New York City did not actually get a say in the National Priorities Listing process. A community group, Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus, got the support of their local and federal representatives who campaigned on their behalf to the EPA and DEC. In this case, the political pressure worked.

At Gowanus, the push for Superfund listing came at a time when the canal was already in the spotlight: while a city-initiated rezoning of the neighborhood didn’t pass until 2021, it had been eyed for years as an area for new development, including under the Bloomberg administration.

The Gowanus community board used the spotlight of the redevelopment plan to champion the need for remediation. In Coney Island, waterway pollution wasn’t a clear priority when the city rezoned the area around the creek for high density residential in 2009.

The legacy of the city’s polluted waterways, left unmitigated as industry has largely moved on, is having a new set of consequences under the threat of climate change. The Army Corps of Engineers’ New York and New Jersey Harbor and Tributaries Study (HATS) project was reinstated in 2021 with the objective of preparing New York City and the surrounding coastal areas for increasingly frequent storm surges and sea level rise.

The long-awaited study, published last year, proposes a number of infrastructure investments to protect the city’s coastline from another Hurricane Sandy, including floodwalls, levees, and storm surge gates.

However, in areas like Gowanus—and Coney Island Creek—those efforts are complicated by the need to keep toxic pollution from becoming trapped behind flood walls.

The fact that Coney Island is included in the HATS proposal at all was a major win for community advocates. Though it is not much comfort to Derrick Batts, owner of Coney Island Hook & Bait, a fishing shop on the Coney Island peninsula. November is the end of the busy season, when customers are driven away by the short days and cold weather.

Batts likes to use the quiet days during the off-season to create small sets of hooks and lures. He knows that for many in his neighborhood, fishing isn’t a choice: Coney Island is a food desert with a large low income population. There is a community of subsistence anglers who use catches from the creek as their primary source of protein.

Flood gates won’t improve the creek’s water quality any. “They should have been on that 20 years ago,” he said, unimpressed. 

A third and final installment in this series will be published Friday.

The post The Quest to Clean Up Coney Island Creek, Part 2: Long Road to Superfund Status appeared first on City Limits.

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