In the summer of 2003, a little more than a full century after the publication of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," Basil Seggos and fellow members of the local watchdog group Riverkeeper made their own trip up one of the world's scariest waterways.
Where Conrad chose Africa's Congo River as his exotic setting, the Riverkeeper team chose a destination closer to home: Newtown Creek, the industrial waterway separating Greenpoint and Long Island City. Long known as a dumping site for industrial polluters, the creek had evaded cleanup thanks largely to its remote, secluded nature.
"We had to take a row boat to get into the east branch," says Seggos, noting the presence of a bridge that effectively blocked passage for the 36-foot boat the organization usually uses when inspecting local waterways.
What the Riverkeeper inspectors found when they got to the other side of that bridge confirmed their worst suspicions. Seggos says there was a "huge white plume" of sediment pouring into the waterway from an underwater drainpipe. It wasn't too hard guessing the source of the plume. Immediately adjacent to the spot where the sediment hit the water was a cement plant, Quality Concrete, and subsequent testing proved the sediment to be high in calcium, an indicator of the limestone aggregate used to make concrete.
"These guys obviously had no cheap ability on site to hook into the city sewer lines," Seggos speculates, noting that 80 percent of the businesses along Newtown Creek operate with no city-provided sewer service. "Rather than hook up a treatment system which is what these kinds of companies should do, they were dumping into an old storm line and sending it to the creek for disposal."
Citing state law which forbids the dumping of untreated industrial waste into New York waterways, Riverkeeper filed notice of its intent to sue. The organization held off on filing the actual lawsuit for the winter, however, when Quality Concrete representatives indicated a willingness to clean up the site. When spring 2004 came and went with no observed cleanup activity, however, the group chose an alternate strategy: It invited Kings County District Attorney Charles Hynes, Greenpoint Councilmember David Yassky and other notables to climb aboard the patrol boat and see the waterway himself. Again, the boat couldn't make it all the way up the creek, but what Hynes saw was enough.
"He was appalled by the conditions," recalls Seggos. "We passed the case on to him, and he ran with it."
That was last summer. This January, the Kings County District Attorney announced the indictment of Quality Concrete, now doing business as Maspeth Concrete Loading, and its chief executive officer, Constantine Quadrozzi, on 22 felony counts and 20 misdemeanor counts of unlawful sewage discharge. "This indictment sends a message that we will not tolerate these actions," said Hynes in a Jan. 2005 statement to the press.
Although the defendant company is based in Maspeth, Queens, just over the borough line, Richard Farrell, an assistant district attorney who is helping prosecute the case, says the office feels it has the authority to go after the company. First of all, the waterway impacted borders Kings County. As a second reason, he cites "the 500 yard rule" in that any courts usually give both county governments the ability to prosecute anything that occurs within 500 yards of the county line.
Brian Gardner, Quadrozzi's attorney, was unavailable for comment for this article, but in a January statement to the Daily News predicted an out-of-court settlement. "Once we sit down with the DA's office, we expect [the charges] to be fully resolved in our favor and dismissed," Gardner told the newspaper.
Even if both sides find a mutually suitable resolution, Farrell sees Quality Concrete as only the first step in what is sure to be a decades-long effort to clean up a creek that has been an industrial haven since the mid-19th century. Larger problems, most notably a 52 acre ExxonMobil site that contains the remnants of a 17 million gallon oil discharge, promise an even bigger legal fight. Still, the bridge has been crossed, both literally and figuratively, and those on the enforcement side appear willing to take on fresh opponents.
"There are other pollution situations being looked at," says Farrell. "I would not call the Quadrozzi situation the most egregious situation out on the creek."
New York smokers who have to take their cigarette breaks on the cold sidewalk have a new reason to complain. According to a report issued by the Clean Air Task Force last month, truck and bus-borne diesel exhaust can be just as deadly, if not more so, than the second hand smoke that once filled city offices, bars and restaurants.
Titled "An Analysis of Diesel Pollution and Public Health in America," the report pegs the local death rate due to diesel soot at 2,729. That's nearly triple the death rate of the next closest metropolitan area, Los Angeles, which loses 918 people a year to diesel-related deaths. When the report broke down the statistics on a per capita basis, the only metropolitan regions to edge the Big Apple were oil-production centers such as Beaumont, Tex. and Baton Rouge, La.
As a point of comparison, the American Lung Association estimates that second hand cigarette smoke causes 3,000 lung cancer deaths and 35,000 heart disease deaths each year. Local stats are unavailable, but a simple breakdown based on a New York City metropolitan population size of 20 million results in 2,500 local deaths due to second hand smoke.
Peter Iwanowicz, director of environmental health for the American Lung Association of New York and a local spokesperson for the Clean Air Task Force, says the report's primary purpose is to dramatize the lingering health hazards caused by a form of air pollution source most people tend to ignore.
"This is the first time an entity has put together a report that uses the EPA's own modeling database," says Iwanowicz. "I think while most people understand that diesel exhaust is bad for you, but what is most startling is how dramatically it points out the risk."
Also startling is the regional disparity. Iwanowicz credits California for imposing tougher pollution standards on the businesses that generate diesel exhaust. Aside from a few high profile settlements, New York in general and New York City in particular remain a place where many companies still get away with aging equipment and excessive idling, he says.
"What we're calling for is a more aggressive plan of action," Iwanowicz says, noting that the EPA's current plan to force transportation companies to employ cleaner-burning engines in new vehicles doesn't go into effect for another two years. The plan leaves it up to local governments to regulate the retrofitting of older, dirtier engines which the task force estimates could take up to 30 years to eliminate from the nation's roadways.
Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, disputes that 30 year estimate, and notes that the study used to estimate exhaust particulate volume dates back to the mid-1990s and thus fails to take into account pollution-limiting technologies implemented over the last decade. At the same time, however, he supports the report's call for more aggressive enforcement of anti-idling laws and the establishment of funding programs to underwrite an industry-wide engine retrofitting program.
"We want people to do retrofitting," says Schaeffer. "We want them buying technology. This isn't your classic industry vs. environmental group story. I happen to think we can get a lot more done working together than communicating by press release."