Sebastian DeJesus has lived in New Lots, next to Spring Creek Park, for more than three decades. “When I bought this home it was like the countryside,” says DeJesus, who is originally from Puerto Rico and is now in his late fifties. “We used to see rabbits. We went to the park to play baseball. We went to the water.”
DeJesus has watched helplessly as city and state agencies have permitted his Brooklyn idyll to be spoiled by construction and waste. Today, 10-foot high dirt mounds, overgrown with weeds, make a majority of the park inaccessible to the public. Cesspool trucks can be seen daily pulling into Spring Creek Park to dump sludge into scavenger pits, which lead to an underground sewage system.
“Think of Spring Creek as a municipal dumping ground,” says Geoffrey Croft, president of New York City Park Advocates. “It is one of the most abused sites in the city and a lot of the abuses come from government agencies.”
Spring Creek Park, which has the largest amount of undeveloped land and wetlands in the area, lies on the northeastern tip of Brooklyn, a small part of it stretching west into Queens. New Lots, the Brooklyn neighborhood that borders the park, counts 87,000 residents; almost 90% of them are African-American and Hispanic, and roughly one third live below the poverty level. According to the City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the people in New Lots are far more likely to suffer from obesity and a variety of illnesses ranging from diabetes (twice the average rate of an average New Yorker) to asthma and cancer. Park advocates say more open space and access to greenery might help defuse these staggering health statistics.
Inside the park snakes Old Mill Creek, its dirty waters marking the dividing line between Brooklyn and Queens. The creek’s shores, which once boasted vacation retreats for the wealthy, are now overgrown with weeds and scattered with trash and dumped tires.
Fountain Avenue, mottled with potholes and lined with high scrubs, follows the creek’s course about 500 feet into the park, where access is cut off by yet another fence. “Danger! Hazardous Waste Area,” warns a sign attached to the gate. This cheerless area appears to be the perfect site for body dumping. And sure enough, a washed out memorial for student Imette St. Guillen, whose ravaged body was recently found on the side of this road, accentuates the disturbing atmosphere.
This is one of the few parts of the park still accessible to the public. Several families leisurely fish for crabs only feet away from the memorial. Locals stand knee-high in the creek’s murky waters, seemingly oblivious to the setting’s eeriness and the neighboring waste plants.
“How do the crabs taste?” I ask one of the men in the water. “Like lobster,” he says, laughing. His hefty young son proudly holds up a wriggling red and blue crab.
DeJesus and his neighbors, who live on the other side of the park, are far less enthusiastic when asked about the park’s resources. They associate the park with two very different pungent smells, one generated by the composting facility and the other by the dumped sludge.
“Sometimes they dump sludge right there,” DeJesus says, pointing to the park’s entrance gate. “We can’t even BBQ because of the smell. When you are poor you have to live with that shit,” he says. “Literally,” his son Oscar adds.
Just then a green truck with big white cesspool lettering pulls out of the park and onto Crescent Street, past a sign prohibiting trucks from entering. The trucks frequently rip down cables, which has left the DeJesus family and their neighbors without electricity and phone service in the past. DeJesus has called 311 many times, without success.
The transformation of Spring Creek Park began about the time DeJesus arrived from Puerto Rico. In 1974, the Parks Department allowed the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to build the Auxiliary Spring Creek Water Pollution Control Plant facing Old Mill Creek and Jamaica Bay. For the next 25 years, the plant accumulated sewage and waste. (The DEP is currently remodeling the plant to comply with environmental laws.)
In 2001, the Department of Sanitation added compost to the waste dump. It started constructing a composting facility without even bothering to obtain the required permit from the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
The facility now takes up almost 20 of Spring Creek’s 75 acres, and although the Dept. of Sanitation eventually filed a permit application to accept 15,000 tons of waste, it has continued to operate the facility without the permit while the application is being reviewed. To comply with the law, a park has to be “demapped” and the community has to be compensated for the loss of public parkland before it can be “alienated” (e.g. used for non-park purposes).
According to New York State’s public trust doctrine, an alienation of mapped parkland has to be approved by the state legislature. In a 2001 case, Friends of Van Cortland Park v. City of New York, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that legislative approval is required “when there is a substantial intrusion on parkland for non-park purposes.” Here the court ruled that the placement of a water filtration plant in the park, even if underground, was subject to alienation legislation because construction of the plant would deprive the public of parkland for a number of years.
The Parks Department and the DEP declined to comment on questions regarding the Spring Creek alienation issue. Matthew Lipani, the Dept. of Sanitation’s spokesperson, wrote in an email that composting does not constitute alienation of parkland. But Daniel Estrin, a professor at PACE University School of Law, thinks differently. In October 2006, the PACE Environmental Litigation Clinic filed a lawsuit on behalf of the advocacy group NY/NJ Baykeeper, challenging the DEC, the Dept. of Sanitation and the Parks Department over the composting facility in Spring Creek Park.
“Basically the City is just doing whatever it wants with public parkland by using that property on its whims,” Estrin says. “You cannot have this kind of waste management on public parkland whether you have a DEC permit or not. You need the state legislature to expressly approve it before you do this. The City’s disregard for the law and DEC’s position that alienation of public parkland is not its problem is really quite shocking.”
City Comptroller William Thompson seems to agree. As early as 2003 he sent a letter to both the Dept. of Sanitation and the DEC pointing out that three composting facilities in the city (Soundview Park in the Bronx, and Canarsie—which has been closed—and Spring Creek, both in Brooklyn) violate the public trust doctrine and environmental laws. In his letter, Thompson suggests that the Dept. of Sanitation “actively ignored the state laws and regulations governing the construction and operation of waste management facilities.”
While the Parks Department’s Spring Creek website conjures up a paradise—“A great place for nature lovers to visit at any time of the year”—New Lots’ residents are angry and concerned about their health. Lucanne, DeJesus’s neighbor, says, “My kitchen faces the park. When I leave the windows open, I have dust on my kitchen counters. I don’t want people to think we are dirty!” But her kitchen’s cleanliness is only a minor concern. “We have pregnant women here,” she continues. “What if the dust is bad for you?” she asks, referring to the dust that blows over from the composting facility.
Dr. Philip Landrigan, a member of the Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit at Mount Sinai, also seems concerned. In a statement posted on www.compostalert.com, the website of a Long Island group fighting a composting facility in their neighborhood, Landrigan suggests that the spores and volatile organic matters released by composting sites may be linked to respiratory diseases.
“These compost piles benefit the city by diverting organic waste from the waste stream,” Phil Abramson, the Parks Department’s spokesperson, says. According to him, compost is being used “to make parks more beautiful all over the City.”
Abramson and Lipani both stated via email (they declined to speak about the issue on the phone) that compost supplies beneficial nutrients to the soil. Their messages, however, didn’t mention the recent proposal made by the Dept. of Sanitation, which seeks to annually compost 1,700 cubic yards of horse manure inside the park, operate heavy equipment and a truck scale, set up an asphalt mill, and build a fuel storage tank as well as fencing and stormwater management basins. Even more troubling is that the proposal’s environmental assessment statement was conducted by the Dept. of Sanitation itself.
“To many people compost has this warm-fuzzy feeling,” Ron Dillon, the president of New Lots’ Concerned Homeowners Association, says. “But it is waste.” Dillon’s group has been fighting the Dept. of Sanitation and the DEC for years. He is afraid that once the DEC issues a permit, the community’s options will run out. “There are no standards for composting. Once they get the permit, there is nothing they can’t do.”
Dillon’s voice reflects the many years of anger and despair inflicted by city agencies on area residents. Until the recent PACE environmental lawsuit, Dillon fought the issue almost single-handedly. “If this were in Manhattan, it would have been stopped,” he says.
The Parks Department, however, presents itself as a defender of nature. According to the department’s spokesman Abramson, the park is reserved for “blue herons, egrets, red-winged blackbirds, pheasants, and mallards … deer, raccoons, and muskrats… bird watchers and nature enthusiasts.” Yet, there is no mention of the effect the operation of heavy equipment and the building of fences has on Spring Creek’s wildlife, or how it has kept Abramson’s “nature enthusiasts” out for almost half a decade.
Abramson’s “environmental concerns” aside, Sanitation’s Matthew Lipani adds another reason why Spring Creek cannot be developed: He says that the park “lacks topsoil and significant natural resource value and was therefore never developed for active or passive park uses (such as playing fields, walking paths or park benches).”
But development is not the main issue that New Lots residents and lawyer Daniel Estrin are fighting for. “We are not saying that the park should be developed,” Estrin says. “What we are saying is that the public should have access to it. It’s a depressed area of the city. The people don’t have many options when it comes to getting back to nature. For the people in that neighborhood—that could be their walk in the woods.”
SABINE HEINLEIN is a freelance journalist, radio producer, and photographer who lives in Brooklyn. Her website is www.sabineheinlein.org.