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
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
"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
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.
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."
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