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Just across the East River from midtown Manhattan’s shimmering skyscrapers sits one of America’s most polluted neighborhoods, fouled by generations of industrial waste, overflow from the city’s sewage system and an underground oil leak bigger than the Exxon Valdez spill.
It’s easy to see — and smell — the filth in and around Newtown Creek, which runs through an area of working-class homes, warehouses and industrial lots straddling the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. The odor of petroleum mixes with the smell of sewage, particularly on rainy days when the city’s treatment plants can’t handle the volume and municipal pipes send trash and human waste straight into the creek.
The US Environmental Protection Agency declared Newtown Creek a Superfund site in 2010 — “one of the most polluted urban water bodies in the country,” according to EPA regional administrator Judith Enck.
Today, the creek’s bottom is lined with a 15-foot-thick layer of petroleum-based pollutants that scientists have dubbed “black mayonnaise.” The ooze penetrated the shoreline and now sits on top of the water table dozens of feet under Brooklyn’s gentrifying Greenpoint neighborhood. More than 300,000 people still live within a mile of the creek.