The Other Black Sea

Seeping into the harbor, the city's oldest oil spill nears court action

We're watching a crime in progress," Councilman Eric Gioia, Democrat of Queens, tells a boatload of reporters who have come to see the largest urban oil spill in the United States seep into the ocean. In other circumstances, the oil, which has lain patiently under Brooklyn for over 50 years, might have powered your grandfather's DeSoto. Instead, it floats on the water table beneath 55 acres of Greenpoint.

Along with Brooklyn Democratic Councilman David Yassky, Gioia has joined a lawsuit to be brought next month by the environmental organization Riverkeeper, seeking to force ExxonMobil to pay penalties to the U.S. government and to clean up the spill, which dates at least as far back as 1950 and is an environmental disaster in which the company has enjoyed relative impunity. "It's caused untold amounts—I mean, truly untold because we don't know—of environmental harm, damage to people's property, and very possibly health damage," says Yassky.

Originally estimated at 17 million gallons (six million more than the Exxon Valdez spill), it slouches through the underground loam toward the crumbling bulkheads lining Newtown Creek, between Brooklyn and Queens, where it collects on the seawater surface. It lies beneath industrial, commercial, and residential zones, including more than 100 homes, according to Riverkeeper. Slipshod booms line the Brooklyn side and are sometimes partially submerged or open at one end, allowing oil to flow out into the creek. The foul-smelling crude rises and drops with the tide, blackening the bulkheads up and down.

Basil B. Seggos, an investigator with Riverkeeper, takes a sample from Newtown Creek on March 25.
photo: Shiho Fukada
Basil B. Seggos, an investigator with Riverkeeper, takes a sample from Newtown Creek on March 25.

"The amount of penalty is currently up to $30,000 a day," said Karl Coplan, co-director, with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., of the Environmental Litigation Clinic at Pace Law School. Coplan will supervise the law students arguing the case for Riverkeeper. The statute of limitations provides for penalties covering only the five years prior to the suit, he says, but "you could easily be talking something like over $50 million in potential penalties." Damage awards and cleanup from the Valdez spill cost Exxon $8.6 billion.

The spill has remained largely out of sight because its seepage is not visible from publicly accessible land. Members of Riverkeeper say they stumbled onto the spill during a 2002 tour of the harbor. ExxonMobil has claimed that it first discovered the spill only in 1978, when its seepage was spotted by the Coast Guard during a routine flyover. The company hasn't revealed the precise circumstances of the original spill, but a 1979 report commissioned by the Guard found that the oil seeping into the creek was mostly likely 30 years old.

That may mean the bulk of the spill was the result of a spectacular explosion in 1950 at a site owned by Rockefeller's Standard Oil, Mobil's predecessor. Petroleum product leaked into sewers and exploded, creating a blast heard a mile away that blew open a reinforced concrete main, shattering hundreds of windows, and hurling 25 manhole covers three stories into the air. Neighborhood residents ran into streets shouting, "Atom bomb!" Decades of sloppy handling on the site progressively contributed to the overall size of the spill.

In 1990, the state's Department of Environmental Conservation and Mobil agreed to a consent decree requiring remediation of the spill. State officials claimed then that Mobil had removed 3 million gallons during a 10-year cleanup. They cited the same figure in 1995, and a company engineer testified in 1997 that Mobil was still in the "initial phases" of cleanup. In 2003, after more than 23 years of cleanup, the company claimed to have recovered well under 5 million gallons.

Riverkeeper views the decree as toothless and notes that it neither extracted any penalties from Mobil nor stipulated an amount of oil to be removed.

Studies indicate that the oil is likely being carried to every corner of New York harbor. More worrisome is the spill's effect on the Brooklyn aquifer. Before 1947, Brooklyn pumped water from wells, and its aquifer was an intended backup in case of drought or the loss of reservoirs. The oil has poisoned the aquifer.

 
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