Reducing Environmental Risk

How do the terrible Gulf oil spill & two contaminated New York waterways compare?

I’m speaking about the Gulf of Mexico oil crisis that began in late April, of course. Few environmental catastrophes have shocked the nation more than the huge, continuing, unremitting flow of many thousands of gallons per hour of oil for seemingly an interminable period, with no end in sight. The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig blew up more than a month ago now, spewing immeasurable quantities of oil into the Gulf. All efforts to contain it have failed. No longer out in the deep ocean, the spill has now reached Gulf beaches. The Louisiana state bird, the pelican, is found covered with crude. 

In New York, we have experienced less dramatic, but still significant quantities of oil and hazardous wastes in many of our waterways. It is true that we have cleaned up large stretches of the magnificent Hudson River. But the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has in the last couple of years nominated both Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn and Newtown Creek, which separates Brooklyn from Queens, to the federal Superfund’s National Priorities List of Superfund sites. The Gowanus Canal is now an NPL Superfund site, and Newtown Creek awaits that final designation. Both waterways are extremely contaminated, presenting environmental, public health and esthetic risks. The only surprise here is how long it took EPA to pay close attention.

Unlike the Gulf oil spill, which has only one source and began very recently, the contamination of the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek have taken place over decades of industrial activities, and by very many different actors along their banks. Responsibility is far more diffuse, which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing, because there are many more “pockets” from which to obtain funding for an agreement to clean up these waterways, starting with New York City itself. It’s a curse, because you have to do a lot more work to get many different parties – each pointing fingers at the others – to agree to spend a great deal of money to clean up these water bodies. EPA estimates that the Gowanus Canal cleanup will ultimately cost at least $500 million; and that the cleanup of Newtown Creek, which is three times longer and three times wider than the Gowanus Canal, will easily top $1 billion, and could go to $2 billion.

The one great advantage that cleaning up each of these New York sites has over cleaning up the Gulf spill is that the two New York contaminated waterways are more or less contained – indeed, Newtown Creek has virtually no flushing action. And the great similarity – at the risk of saying the obvious – is that both types of catastrophes – one (the Gulf) sudden and “accidental” – and the other, the result of so many decades of casual and, at the time, legal disposal – result from advanced industrial activity needed to support the needs and appetites of Americans.

Yet the Gulf oil disaster seems far worse, for several reasons: first, as to prevention, BP (British Petroleum) could have spent money – but it did not – to put in greater prevention measures, including, for example, to replace the blowout preventer on the Deepwater Horizon well, or the technology required by Norway and Canada, an acoustic detection device for early warning of a blowout. Second, as to the cleanup itself, it also appears that British Petroleum chose one of the most environmentally damaging oil dispersants, Corexit 9500, to deal with the problem. EPA has now ordered BP to discontinue its use. So, we rail against BP in a way that we cannot bring ourselves to doing against the scores of businesses that caused the vast contamination in the Gowanus Canal and at Newtown Creek. Nevertheless, the harm to the environment is also very real.



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