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Newtown Creek joins DEP beach watch list

The city's Department of Environmental Protection is expanding its volunteer beach surveillance program to include several non-beach sites in the borough, including Newtown Creek, Flushing Bay, College Point and Fort Totten, a spokesman for the agency said.

The DEP is expanding its volunteer program to include resident monitoring at several Queens waterfront sites that are not used for swimming, such as Newtown Creek, which separates western Queens and Brooklyn and is the site of a massive oil spill, and Flushing Bay, said Robert Gans, program manager of the DEP's Beach Floatable Program. The program will run from May 1 through October.

"We're looking for floatables that are washing up from the water onto shore," he said. "We want to build a database, in which our volunteers will be the eyes and ears of the city."

Each volunteer would monitor a site once per week for 20 minutes and jot down their findings on a ratings sheet, designating a locale's cleanliness as "very good," "good," "fair" or "poor," Gans said. Volunteers would also note weather conditions, such as rainfall, and take photographs of the site, he said.

If a volunteer spots one of the DEP's 114 types of debris washed up on the shore, they would report directly to the agency, Gans said. The city would then clean up the site, he said. The volunteers would not clean the site themselves, he said.

Newtown Creek has long been a source of controversy in the borough. In 1978, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter patrol discovered the spill, believed to have started anywhere from 50 years to 100 years ago. The EPA released a study last fall which found that the spill could be anywhere between 17 million and 30 million gallons. Several major oil companies, including ExxonMobil, BP and Chevron, are responsible for removing petroleum from the ground underneath Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and the creek.

Basil Seggos, chief investigator for Tarrytown-based environmental advocacy group Riverkeeper, said the DEP program would assist in the cleanup of the polluted creek.

"Any opportunity for local communities to watchdog their waterways is a good thing," he said. "This program would empower citizens to observe conditions and report problems back to government agencies, giving them a voice in restoring the waterway."

The city currently uses volunteers to monitor 45 beaches for pollution citywide, including Little Bay in Little Neck, Alley Pond in Douglaston and sections of the Rockaways.

Reach reporter Nathan Duke by e-mail at nduke@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

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