So far, 12 million gallons of oil have been extracted using pumps inserted into dozens of wells.
When the two cleanups are done — on separate timetables — there’s still ‘‘the icing on the cupcake,’’ as Musegaas calls about 1½ billion gallons of wastewater that flows into Newtown Creek each year from the city’s combined sewage and storm drain pipes.
The city is working to reduce stormwater flow into the sewer system, with a plan to gradually divert it to porous street pavements, green rooftops and rain harvesting equipment. Now, the rainwater pouring into street drains ends up in antiquated pipes that receive both wastewater and sewage, overwhelming treatment plants. The overflow goes into city rivers and creeks like Newtown.
‘‘It’s never going to be pristine, the way it was 500 years ago,’’ says Walter Mugdan, an EPA official overseeing the Superfund site. ‘‘But we can make it dramatically cleaner than it is now.’’
On the creek, nature survives — just barely, with egrets perched along the bulkheads and grass pushing up from defunct docks.
The cries of seagulls fill the air as they swoop over a junkyard that sells scrap metal to China. There’s a lumber yard nearby, plus warehouses storing fruit and produce that feeds the city.
On the Queens side, an immigrant Vietnamese family just opened a small Asian restaurant called The Bunker, where they've installed air- and water-purifying devices ‘‘to create a healthy haven here, an oasis from the pollution in the neighborhood,’’ says chef Jimmy Tu.
Until the 1990s, the gritty neighborhood was filled with Polish, Russian and Italian immigrants and their families.
With Manhattan property prices skyrocketing, a luxury waterfront community called Greenpoint Landing will start rising this summer near the East River mouth of Newtown Creek, 10 residential towers with 5,000 apartments, a marina, a retail complex and a prime view of the city.
A short walk away is a hulking brick building where rope was once braided for ships. It’s been turned into space for entrepreneurs and artists who are among a new breed of locals.
Newtown Creek is the story of New York’s rich and poor — and the changing times, says Karl LaRocca, a 39-year-old printmaker.
When the oil refineries were booming, ‘‘the rich people were all living farther away and using this for their industry,’’ he says. ‘‘Now we've had this reversal where the waterfront is this desirable property, and that’s why they’re cleaning up.’’
EPA Superfund: http://www.epa.gov/region02/superfund/npl/newtowncreek
Newtown Creek Alliance: http://www.newtowncreekalliance.org