Barge sinks off Greenpoint, though environmental threat remains minimal

a large barge sunk in newtown creek near Greenpoint
A barge used by Allocco Recycling sank in Newtown Creek on Monday, but doesn’t present much of a threat to the environment, say state and federal officials.
Photo courtesy of Willis Elkins/Newtown Creek Alliance

A barge sank in Newtown Creek off the coast of ​​Greenpoint on Monday, sending tens of thousands of pounds of steel and dirt to the bottom of the 3.5 mile tributary of the East River.

Allocco Recycling Company, an industrial recycling firm founded on Kingsland Avenue more than 30 years ago, had used the barge to store and transfer recycled fill materials — essentially, dirt, rocks, and concrete — to other ships and barges, which sail out of the creek to deliver the fill to its next home, likely a new construction site.

The barge was stationary and didn’t have a motor or any oil or fuel onboard, so there’s no risk of a chemical spill in the already heavily-polluted waterway, said a representative of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, who noted that the fill material itself isn’t much of an environmental concern. 

Though the barge itself isn’t much of a concern, the enormous vessel is now sitting directly atop a series of six pipelines carrying oil, gas, and jet fuel to facilities across the city, including John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia airports. 

As of Wednesday afternoon, there was no indication of a spill of any kind, according to the EPA.

sunken barge in newtown creek
The U.S. Coast guard has set up markers and floodlights to ensure boaters give the sunken vessel a wide berth while sailing down Newtown Creek. Photo courtesy of Willis Elkins/Newtown Creek Alliance

A similar Allocco barge sank in Newtown Creek in 2016. At that time, a DEC representative told the now-defunct website DNAinfo that the thick layer of toxic sludge coating the bottom of the estuary cushioned the pipelines from damage.

It is not clear how large the barge that sank on Monday is — the owner of the vessel, Coeyman Towing Company, declined to comment, but a U.S. Coast Guard representative confirmed to Brooklyn Paper that the barge is a “hopper,” which cannot move on its own. According to Coeyman’s website, the company owns several hoppers, which range in size between 159 feet and 260 feet long. The vessel that sank in 2016 was 260 feet long.

Newtown Creek, which flows between Greenpoint and Long Island City, is a federal Superfund site, with water and sediments being heavily contaminated with dangerous chemicals from the neighborhood’s industrial past and present.

As such, the EPA is monitoring the sunken barge and the efforts to remove it, but doesn’t feel the need to take immediate action, the representative said.

Willis Elkins, the executive director of the Newtown Creek Alliance, said the risk for a major environmental hazard is minimal. There is a concern for the integrity of the pipelines, but so far, the EPA has reported no leaks.

“The other aspect of the situation is the sediment, the muck that’s at the bottom of the creek, is fairly contaminated,” Elkins said. “I guess there’s cause for concern that anything is coming in contact with the bottom of the creek and disturbing those sediments, or potentially migrating contaminants that are already down there.”

The local arm of the U.S. Coast Guard is also monitoring the situation, said Mariana O’Leary, a public affairs supervisor with the New York office, as it presents a navigational hazard for other boats traversing the Creek. As such, the Coast Guard has set up lights and sent out broadcast warnings to other mariners to make sure they take special care when passing the barge.

Since the enormous sunken vessel is an inland barge, it is not inspected by the Coast Guard, and isn’t a severe enough navigational hazard to warrant closing Newtown Creek to traffic. It’s Coeyman’s responsibility to figure out how to remove it, O’Leary said.

It took just over a week for Allocco to organize and complete the intensive operation to lift the barge from the bottom of the channel in 2016, with the help of some heavy maritime machinery, as chronicled by the Newtown Pentacle. Maritime traffic was stopped to allow the work to move forward safely and efficiently.

Allocco did not respond to requests for comment.

The beleaguered barge, named Weeks 76, docked in the Gowanus Canal before sinking in Jan. 2021. Photo by Kevin Duggan

On a visit to Greenpoint near the banks of the Creek on Thursday morning, though, Elkins was informed that a large crane will be making the trip out to Brooklyn next week to begin the process of removing the hunk of metal.

North Brooklyn has seen a spate of barges going down — in addition to the Allocco vessel that went down in 2016, a boat filled to the brim with freshly-excavated “black mayonnaise” from the Gowanus Canal sank in Gowanus Bay early last year after receiving a sizable gash in its hull from exposed metal on the side of its home dock.

While the semi-regular rescue of underwater transports isn’t ideal, Elkins said the use of barges to store and transport material like the fill at Allocco is an important and environmentally-friendly endeavor for the city.

“These barges are very large, a barge of this size is taking probably 40-plus eighteen wheelers off the streets in terms of exporting these materials outside of the city,” he said. “That’s much less fuel, air emissions, local pollution, truck traffic. Our organization is very supportive of maritime use in Newtown Creek.”