There has been no shortage of studies relating to the pollution in Newtown Creek, which divides parts of Brooklyn from Queens.
But those studies primarily talked about toxic chemicals and heavy metals — cadmium, chromium, copper, lead and mercury.
Rachael Weiss, a resident of Greenpoint in Brooklyn, sees something missing in those: the residents.
Weiss is determined to change that. She has received a $46,000 grant from the state Department of Environmental Conservation to compile narratives from those who live in the communities along the creek, including Maspeth and Sunnyside in Queens. The purpose of the study, entitled Community Health and Harm Narratives Project, is to capture the residents’ experience with illness in their neighborhood.
Weiss, a grad student in public health, moved to Greenpoint about three years ago and soon became involved with the Newtown Creek Alliance, a group that advocates for the cleanup of the estuary. She would often see people stand up at local meetings to talk about health problems possibly related to the pollution — pets dying, family members with cancer — but often get silenced because it was the wrong venue to present such a discussion.
“I got this sense that people had these stories and they were frustrated,” she said. “They were angry and had some bad stuff going on in their life, but it wasn’t the right outlet. I thought it would be an empowering thing to actually document these stories.”
“These communities have a very long industrial toxic history,” added Teresa Toro, who is also working on the project. The idea, Toro said, is that the pollution is likely related to health concerns among the residents.
The 3.5-mile creek, a tributary of the East River, is one of the most polluted waterways in the nation. Its history of contamination dates back to the 19th century, when coal and oil refineries opened beside the estuary.
All along the banks, rusty old pipes jet out over the water, many tracing back to unknown inland sources. Compounding the problem is a city sewer system which dumps raw sewage into the water whenever it rains more than one-tenth of an inch.
The creek is also the home of one of the largest oil spills, with estimates between 17 and 30 million gallons, resulting from a Standard Oil tank explosion in 1950. Standard, now ExxonMobil, operated along the creek for years.
State tests have found an array of toxic chemicals and heavy metals and the federal Environmental Protection Agency is also studying the creek to determine whether to make it a Superfund site, making it eligible for millions in remediation.
The closer one gets to the water, the easier it is to understand some of the residents’ concerns. Standing on the corner of Maspeth Avenue and 49th Place, the taste of dust and chemicals soon hits the back of the throat, while trucks trundle along many of the industrial sites around the area.
Running alongside the avenue is a fence, with random trash on either side. Beyond the fence is an embankment that runs down to the dark waters of the creek.
Toro said the group has no predetermined notions of what it will find; rather, it wants to see what rises to the surface. It may be something as big as noticing a high number of cancers, or something smaller like identifying strange smells at certain times of the day.
“We’re not trying to prove or disprove anything,” she said. “We’re looking. It seems there must be some kind of pattern.”
To get the stories, Weiss and Toro are recruiting residents of the community to interview their neighbors. Weiss said the interviews will likely be conducted until the end of the summer. In addition to a report sent to the state, the information will be displayed on a website, which will include an interactive map where people can click on different areas and hear the narratives of people living there.
The group is still looking for people to join its crew, as well as those who are willing to tell their stories. Weiss can be reached by calling (718) 577-1359, or via email at email@example.com.