One of the first things I learned after moving to Greenpoint in 2011 was that The Mark Bar gives out free bagels on Sundays. Or at least they used to. (Does this still happen? Asking seriously). The second thing I learned was that Newtown Creek, which I walk over every day to get to the 7 train, is home to one of the worst oil spills in U.S. history. Over the last couple of decades anywhere from 17 to 30 million gallons of oil have escaped from ExxonMobil’s refinery and storage facilities underneath Greenpoint and leaked into the soil and water surrounding North Brooklyn.
In the fall of 2013, a settlement with ExxonMobil awarded $19.5 million to community groups with proposals for “environmentally beneficial projects.” Small grants have already been doled out, but the larger ones remain in the process.
One proposal by LaGuardia Community College and Mount Sinai Medical Center, called Health Outreach Program and Environmental Survey (HOPES), is seeking $1 million to map out all the toxic areas in our neighborhood.
The proposal sounds like a huge undertaking since mapping the area will involve going over health records and conducting home surveys. Holly Porter Morgan, a LaGuardia environmental sciences professor, told the New York Post that the ultimate goal of the project is “to give people a picture of what they’re facing.”
Given the wide array of health concerns many residents in Greenpoint have experienced over the years due to pollutants, it makes sense to give the public more information about the possible side effects. Outlets reporting on the proposal highlight residents suffering from asthma, autoimmune diseases, cancers, blood disorders, and more. That’s some pretty serious stuff, and the public has a right to know the possibility of future health concerns before signing a lease or renewing one.
I imagine the toxic sites map benefiting the community in a couple of ways. Showing health issues in relation to toxic sites could help prove that these illnesses were caused by manmade pollutants. I’m no doctor, but I can only imagine if enough people get cancer who also happen to live right on an especially toxic area, it won’t be long before people start to realize there might be some causation. The map could also help residents with young children, who are especially susceptible to toxins, avoid areas with higher concentrations of pollutants.
And while many people know about Greenpoint’s history with oil spills and toxic waste, there are many residents who are still in the dark. The more people who know about the dangers of living in an area filled with dangerous chemicals, the more likely they are to get involved and take an interest in environmental issues.
The question is, once the public learns just how toxic our neighborhood is, will they stay and advocate cleaning it up? Or could the toxic site map turn people away from Greenpoint? Given New York City’s insanely competitive housing market, I doubt people would turn down a great deal in an in-demand neighborhood because of a few toxins, but maybe that’s just me.
I lived in Greenpoint for two years, left for one, and came back knowing all about the history of the oil spill and how it’s really not a good idea to fish out of the East River. I’ve seen signs suggesting pregnant women shouldn’t even touch anything that comes out of our neighborhood water channel. But I knew the risks going in, which is more than residents who’ve been in the area for decades could say when they picked their Greenpoint apartments. Hopefully the toxic sites map can help everyone make an educated decision about where they want to live in North Brooklyn.