On a foggy October day in 2002, Basil Seggos first saw the sheen on the surface of the water. He and his colleagues had launched an old wooden-hulled oyster boat from the Dyckman marina in Inwood, and headed south, down the Harlem and East rivers. They were on a mission to document fishing and crabbing spots on the riverfront so that local anglers could be warned not to eat their catch. When Seggos’s boat reached the mouth of Newtown Creek, the finger of water that separates Brooklyn from Queens, they decided to sail into the creek to check out its unnatural landscape—miles of waste-processing plants, gasoline-storage facilities, and abandoned refineries. The boat passed floating auto parts, crumbling bulkheads, and rusting pipes spewing filthy-looking water. Then, about a mile in, Seggos saw it: oil coating the surface of the water from shore to shore and extending upstream for another half-mile or so. “It was everywhere, all over the shoreline.” Officially, Seggos was running an outreach program for Riverkeeper, RFK Jr.’s environmental organization, and the organization’s protocol in situations like these is to stop and call the state Department of Environmental Conservation hotline. The call is supposed to provoke an immediate reaction, but no one showed up. The next day, Seggos called again. “We’d never even heard of a spill there before,” says Seggos. “But they told me they already had an open case on it and they were handling it.”
What Seggos discovered—or rediscovered—wasn’t an oil spill, exactly. Rather, it was a mix of gasoline, solvents, and associated poisons bubbling up from the very ground: a thin dribble that betrays the presence of a supertanker’s worth of the stuff submerged in the age-old geology of Greenpoint. It’s actually more than a century’s worth of spills, leaks, and waste dumped by oil companies that has pooled into a vast underground lake, more than 55 acres wide and up to 25 feet thick. First discovered by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1978, the Greenpoint spill has been estimated at anywhere between 17 million and 30 million gallons—three times more oil than the Exxon Valdez spill. That makes it the largest known oil spill in American history.
Seggos had stumbled upon a long-forgotten industrial accident, decades in the making. It soon became an obsession. Over the next thirteen months, he dug through old news clippings and contacted state and local officials. He attended community meetings and organized local activists into the Newtown Creek Alliance. And he tried to understand how it was that a giant oil spill remained so little known in the thriving neighborhood right above it. What he learned, mostly through Freedom of Information Act requests, was that Mobil—the company that had likely spilled most of the oil—had quietly agreed with state officials to assume responsibility for the necessary cleanup. In return, the state wouldn’t make any more demands: no timetables, no fines, no set outcomes. Both sides could avoid a bitter, costly, and potentially embarrassing court battle. And by keeping it quiet, there would be no public panic—or costly liability.
Alarmed, Riverkeeper initiated a lawsuit in January 2004 against ExxonMobil (Mobil merged with Exxon in 1999) in order to force the company to clean faster and more thoroughly. This triggered a round of private lawsuits: Two of the nation’s best-known tort lawyers trekked to Greenpoint to represent the Polish immigrants, secretaries, carpenters, and police officers who live there—not to mention the young creative class that has been gentrifying the area for over a decade. Even the state, which tolerated the situation for almost 30 years, has gotten into the act: It is threatening to sue now, too.
At the crux of all the lawsuits is the impact of this huge subterranean reservoir—on human health, on the environment, and on Greenpoint’s property values. In ExxonMobil’s view, the pile-on is mere opportunism by lawyers and politicians beating up on a company that’s already committed to cleaning up a mess that may not even be its fault: After all, it’s not clear where all the oil came from, and whenever this happened, environmental standards were different then. On the other side of the aisle are the activists, tort lawyers, and now the attorney general. The activists and the A.G. insist there are better and faster ways to clean it up. The tort lawyers, meanwhile, are working to put a price on the damage it might be causing: $58 billion, by one law firm’s estimate.
To see the extent of the problem, imagine a viscous tar-colored blob stretching amoebalike through the Earth. It starts where Meeker Avenue hits Newtown Creek, seeping out into the waterway. From there it extends south and steadily deeper under the Brooklyn soil, reaching a depth of about 40 feet. It’s contained from below by the groundwater in the Brooklyn-Queens aquifer: The oil is repelled by the water, so the muck “floats” on top. Like the Blob in the eponymous Steve McQueen movie, it keeps changing shape and moving—bulging south beyond the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, slithering north toward Greenpoint Avenue, ballooning west to at least Monitor Street. This black lagoon fills the nooks and crannies in the gravel, sand, and silt that characterize the soil of the area, pooling in pockets that range from just centimeters thick to natural vats that are 25 feet deep. The contaminated zone encompasses at least 55 acres of northern Brooklyn—an area roughly the size of Tribeca.