A Spill Bubbles Up

It came from beneath Greenpoint: A creepy oil plume starts to get some notice

State Department of Environmental Conservation spokeswoman Maureen Wren points out that the agency conducts public meetings and last year posted a page on its website assuring readers that the “DEC and responsible parties [are moving] forward with investigation and product recovery,” proffering long, jargon-filled explanations.

Another type of language barrier presents itself in Greenpoint’s large community of Polish immigrants. An aide in Lentol’s Brooklyn office says a number of people have come in whose “English wasn’t great, or they couldn’t speak English at all.” And factor in the recent influx of younger, wealthier people gentrifying Greenpoint, who often know little of the neighborhood’s history and nothing about the spill.

The fact that the spill lies underground—some pools as deep as 40 feet below street surface—may be why its significance was overlooked for so long. The stench hovers in the neighborhood in the summer, but only the oil that has oozed into Newtown Creek can be readily seen, and the few places where residents can even reach the water are nothing more than litter-strewn dead ends. No photographs exist of oil-drenched animals or houses stained black, and the description of an enormous migrating subterranean plume reads like science fiction.

Illustration by Jorge Colombo

In the past, the public accepted what the companies and the government told them: The oil poses no risks, and it’s being removed as quickly as possible, reassurances that the two new lawsuits dispute. Exxon Mobil and the DEC say almost 9 million gallons of oil have been removed so far, and they estimate it will take 20 more years to get at the rest—and that’s just the liquid oil. Experts working with Girardi & Keese believe that contamination ranges much farther than maps indicate, and Exxon Mobil engineers have admitted that they’ll likely never be able to clean up all the oil, because it migrates and mixes with the soil. Exxon Mobil spokesman Brian Dunphy says, “We’ll continue our remediation activities until the job is done,” adding that the company is using the best technology it has to remove the oil.

More and more residents, however, are dismayed. “I guess I’m naive,” says Jane Pedota, a plaintiff in the Girardi & Keese civil suit, who’s lived on Hausman Street atop the plume for 27 years. “You think with all that oil under there, of course they’d be responsible. They’d go down there and take care of it. You put it in the back of your head.” style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 

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