A Spill Bubbles Up


“You die of cancer in Greenpoint,” says Tom Stagg, a retired NYPD
detective who can name 36 people from his block over the years who’ve had
cancer. “That’s what you do.”

And that’s one reason Manhattan
lawyer Marc Bern was talking to 100 people one evening last week in the
Brooklyn neighborhood. “You have been the victims of the oil companies,” he
told the crowd
at St. Stanislaus Memorial Post, an American
Legion hall. A mix of longtime Greenpoint residents and recent immigrants from
Poland, they gathered to learn details of a 17-million-gallon oil spill that’s
lingered beneath their homes for decades—and
the $58 billion class action suit Bern’s firm filed against Exxon Mobil, BP,
and Chevron just a few days earlier. They sat at long wooden tables, on which
plastic containers full of Italian cookies sat near piles of photocopied
retainer contracts awaiting signatures.

“Today is an important day,” Bern declared, pausing to allow an
interpreter to translate his words into Polish.

“Today?” murmured Marion Daverin, who was sitting several rows
back. “It’s been going on for years already.” Daverin, a 52-year-old lifelong
Greenpoint resident, says she’s known for a while that there was some sort of
spill, but not its extent. Details were sketchy at best, when they weren’t
completely off base. People mistakenly thought all the spilled petroleum had
poured into Newtown Creek, where the Coast Guard first spotted it in
1978—the same year the Love Canal toxic mess made national headlines.
Others thought that the lake of oil under Greenpoint, pooling on the
groundwater, lingered only under the oil companies’ properties lining the
Brooklyn side of the creek. Many assumed that the oil—original estimates
put the spill at a staggering 30 million gallons—had already been cleaned
up. “We never thought it was hazardous to our health,” Daverin told the Voice
. “Only in more recent years did we even know it was
under our houses.”

Napoli Bern Ripka is the second cadre of lawyers to come into
the neighborhood in the past six months with a lawsuit alleging that cleanup
hasn’t moved quickly enough. The Los Angeles firm Girardi & Keese filed a
civil suit against the oil companies on behalf of individual residents in
November; neighborhood people credit that firm with spreading awareness of the
spill through Greenpoint.

Not everyone’s happy about that. “The more publicity, the worse
it is for property values,” Assemblyman Joe Lentol told the St. Stanislaus
Memorial Post crowd. “Not because I put property before life but because, for
people in this room, their property is their life. It’s all they have.”

He stood up during Bern’s question-and-answer period and said,
“What I worry is that we may be having a feeding frenzy of lawyers.” And of the
growing publicity, he added, “Another legitimate concern is that we don’t want
this community to be portrayed as a Love Canal.”

The assemblyman, who’s
represented Greenpoint in Albany since 1972,>  told the Voice he worries that the spill will be “overdramatized.” Still, Lentol has
been openly critical of how the cleanup has progressed and has pressed for a
new round of tests. He does acknowledge that public pressure would likely
prompt the oil companies to remove the spill faster. However, he told
the Voice, the lawsuits
“should proceed as quietly as [they] possibly can in order to avoid making it
into something it’s not.”

But with two law firms vying for their attention, Greenpoint
residents who never knew they lived on top of oil are quickly learning. Now the
question isn’t whether there’s an oil spill under a residential part of
Greenpoint, but how one of the largest oil spills in the nation’s
history—eclipsing the Exxon Valdez
by at least 6 million gallons—stayed
under wraps so long.

One fact residents are now realizing is that chemical vapors
rising off the “plume” may be toxic; a study done last summer detected
dangerous levels of benzene, a carcinogen, in soil only a few feet below street
level. Although the state’s department of health has long maintained there’s no
cancer cluster in Greenpoint, anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise: Longtime
residents who spoke with the Voice count
friends and neighbors diagnosed with leukemia or pancreatic cancer, or know of
women who’ve had reproductive problems. A noticeable number of the ill, they
say, are in their late twenties or younger.

A working-class neighborhood
with large swatches of land zoned for heavy industry, Greenpoint has long been
steeped in pollutants from oil refineries,
an incinerator, a glue factory, a sewage treatment plant, and the countless
other toxic-waste-producing facilities that opened and closed over the years.
The plume is just one problem of many, which some residents suggest is a reason
why public concern over the oil spill never amassed. They also wonder whether
it would’ve been a much bigger media story had it occurred somewhere wealthier
or more picturesque than Greenpoint.

The spill did make headlines over the past three decades, and
local activists were on the case. Public meetings were held as issues arose,
and newspapers covered the story when new developments emerged. But for long
stretches of time there weren’t many of either: Exxon Mobil, which the state
ordered to clean up the spill in 1990, has been removing the oil since 1995,
and BP and Chevron followed suit. Prior to 1990, says Lentol, “We weren’t as
aware of the environmental dangers as we are today. . . . The information was
out there, but we didn’t fathom its importance.”

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

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.”