The thick, dark ooze is a hydrocarbon cocktail: part degraded gasoline, part fuel oil, part naphtha—the chemical from which napalm takes its name. All of it is toxic. Dig seven or eight feet down—the typical depth of a basement—and in some parts you’ll find benzene vapor, a known carcinogen, at concentrations as high as 1,560 parts per million. That’s more than 100 times the short-term (fifteen-minute) exposure limits set by OSHA for industrial workers. More recently, PCEs (perchloroethylenes) and TCEs (trichloroethylenes), suspected carcinogens that are able to dissolve in water, have been found in the underground oil plume—not to mention the Queens water supply. Whether the plume is the source of the contamination is a matter of dispute.
The good news is that the toxic goop saturating the sandy soil is at least partly capped by a semi-permeable clay layer, the natural legacy of Brooklyn’s 10,000-year-old geology. But the oil can still travel laterally. Experts advising some of the residents suing say they’ve found the stuff beyond the contaminated zone, leading them to believe the lagoon may be much larger—up to 30 million gallons—and encroaching deep into the residential side of Greenpoint. The oil companies have removed 9 million gallons so far. So depending on whose experts you believe, there could still be more than 20 million gallons of toxins sloshing around down below.
The disputed facts are the centerpiece of a lawsuit filed against ExxonMobil in 2004 by Riverkeeper and eight members of the Newtown Creek Alliance. But while Seggos has been instrumental in pushing the issue back into the public consciousness—mostly by highlighting the health risks the spill poses—he’s not the first to have noticed that something was amiss on the shores of Newtown Creek. The problem’s roots stretch back over a hundred years.
During the industrial boom of the 1890s, local activists calling themselves the Fifteenth Ward Smelling Committee paddled up the creek seeking the polluters responsible for the foul stenches wafting from the once-pristine waterway. They had plenty to choose from: glue-makers and fertilizer processors produced plenty of noxious by-product. But the oil refineries were the worst offenders: Workers transferring oil and solvents from one part of the plant to another inevitably spilled; storage tanks leaked; and the process of distilling oil to make kerosene, paraffin wax, naphtha, gasoline, and fuel oil left all sorts of junk. “If roughly 5 percent of the initial crude petroleum consumed by the refineries ended up as coke residue, gas, or other loss, as the contemporary literature suggested,” writes historian Andrew Hurley, “each of New York’s petroleum districts would have produced the equivalent of 300,000 gallons of waste material each week during the 1880s.” What couldn’t be resold or burned up was simply dumped on the ground or into the water. There were more than 50 refineries in Greenpoint in 1870, and by 1892, Standard Oil owned most of them.
At the time, Newtown Creek was one of the busiest waterways in the country, and the most hazardous: Fires routinely broke out at the refineries, sometimes burning down entire factories and leaving the chemical remains to soak into the soil. In 1919, twenty acres of the Standard Oil refinery, storing 110 million gallons of oil, went up in smoke. The oil that didn’t burn sunk into the ground. Given the natural order of things, one would expect this oil eventually to drain into the creek and escape into the ocean—but it didn’t. Instead, it slowly moved away from the creek and backed up into Brooklyn. That’s because until about 60 years ago, Brooklyn relied on its own wells for drinking water. And the borough pumped so much of its groundwater to the surface that it reversed the natural slope of its underground water table, tilting it away from the creek and toward the Brooklyn Navy Yard, near where the municipal water pumps were diligently sucking. And so the oil, slinking above the water table, flowed with it, filling the interstitial spaces where the groundwater had once been. By the forties, the aquifer was so depleted that seawater had begun to infiltrate it, making it useless. So in 1949 Brooklyn switched to water piped down from the Catskills.
One year later, on October 5, a vast underground explosion centered at Huron Street and Manhattan Avenue sent 25 manhole covers shooting into the Greenpoint sky, where they reached elevations as high as three stories. This was the first clue that anything was amiss. An investigation revealed that gasoline was leaking into the neighborhood’s sewer system, but at the time no one thought to measure the amount of manhole propellant that had not ignited. Meanwhile, with the municipal water pumps in mothballs, Brooklyn’s aquifer slowly started filling back up. By the late seventies, the water table had rebounded to its natural level. And the oil that floated on top of it reversed its flow. It now moved toward what was once again the lowest point: Newtown Creek.