In the summer of 2014, a number of large oil sheens were present on Newtown Creek, the 3.8-mile Superfund site that borders Western Queens and Northern Brooklyn. After numerous reports from various citizens that launched an investigation, the New York State Department of Conservation received an anonymous tip—hard proof—of someone dumping waste oil into a drain that fed into the Creek. They were able to identify the parties and clean most of it up; sightings of large blobs of petroleum have since decreased significantly.
In follow-up discussions with various agencies about these events, a few community members learned that certain city employees working near the Creek had seen the same sheens throughout the summer but not made any reports, simply because seeing oil on the Creek was considered “normal.” For a number of years, that was true of Newtown Creek. As anyone who traveled up the Creek by boat more than ten years ago, like the environmental watchdog organization Riverkeeper, can attest, there were areas where thick pockets of oil rested above the surface water on a regular basis. These were primarily seeps from the infamous Greenpoint oil spill, sometimes contained by floating booms, sometimes not.
Following community concern and legal action by Riverkeeper and the New York State District Attorney to improve Exxon’s remediation and containment of the spill, conditions improved and seepage stopped; come 2014, it was not the norm to see large rainbows of petroleum product floating around Newtown Creek. However, the city employee’s reliance on a framework of normalcy is quite common when dealing with environmental burdens—and also quite troublesome given how short our memory span can be.
Currently, untreated sewage is discharged into New York City waterways during most rainstorms (billions of gallons a year, in fact). This has been happening for as long as any living citizen can remember—so is it normal? Does the fact that our sewer system has been in violation of the Clean Water Act since it was enacted over forty years ago add to the normalcy of the occurrence and our apparent complacency on the issue?
About every six hours of so, the local tidal currents change direction and bring millions of gallons of water into or out of New York Harbor. This massive rising and falling of the sea has happened for thousands of years, through countless human generations. It will continue to happen thousands of years into the future, bringing sea life, sewage discharge, dumped oil or whatever else is normal at the time along for the ride.
One of the greatest consequences of living in an Anthropocene era is how society operates on a completely different timescale than nature. This incongruence skews our perspective on what is considered normal. It is one of the great opportunities of artists and activists alike to expose and hopefully help adjust this discrepancy. Recognition and appreciation are ever more important as human impact begins to impact what is normal for the rest of the planet, be it temperature levels, migration routes, wildlife habitats, or biodiversity.
WILLIS ELKINS is program manager for the Newtown Creek Alliance. He lives in Greenpoint and helps run canoe trips and environmental education programming with the North Brooklyn Boat Club.