To Clean Up Newtown Creek, Get to Know its Microbes


Newtown Creek winds along the border of Brooklyn and Queens before emptying out into the East River. Over the centuries, pollution from coal yards, sawmills, oil refineries, and factories, along with more recent sewage overflow and two oil spills have left the creek heavily befouled. Today, Newtown Creek is a designated Superfund site.

“The creek is highly contaminated, and it’s right in the backyard of our school,” says associate professor Olga Calderón. “We’re interested in both helping restore the ecosystem, and in helping the community learn about it.”

To begin, scientists at LaGuardia Community College examined the microbes at the bottom of the creek’s food chain.

In their recent study published in the Global Journal of Environmental Science and Management, first author Calderón and co-authors Professor Holly Porter-Morgan, Professor Joby Jacob, and project manager of Newtown Creek Alliance Willis Elkins found cause for concern as well as hope.

They discovered a diverse mix of bacteria including marine organisms, animal and human pathogens, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The researchers also identified hydrocarbonoclastic bacteria, which can degrade oil and may one day help clean up the river’s oil spills.

Levels of some bacteria changed after heavy rains, the team noted. In heavy rain or snowmelt, the volume of runoff and wastewater in the sewers can be more than the treatment plant in Greenpoint can handle, and untreated water overflows into the creek.

Each observation will help piece together an accurate understanding of the creek.

“We’re trying to connect all of the dots — how the bacteria impact each other and how they impact the ecosystem,” Calderón says. Better knowledge of the ecosystem will help policy-makers make decisions about remediation programs.

“People still go canoeing and fishing in the creek,” Calderón says. “Knowing that these bacteria are there, and alerting the public, is crucial.”

Beyond SUM

Explore This Work
Bacterial diversity impacts as a result of combined sewer overflow in a polluted waterway
Global Journal of Environmental Science and Management, 2017

Work By
Olga Calderón (Professor, Biology)
Holly Porter-Morgan (Professor, Biology)
Joby Jacob (Professor, Biology)

Colleges and Schools
LaGuardia Community College

Related Terms

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