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The Ooze

Basil Seggos, the founder of the Newton Creek Alliance.  

Then, in September 1978, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter noticed an iridescent glaze spreading out over the narrow waterway. The oil under Greenpoint had reemerged. That sparked the first investigation into how much oil from the refineries had leaked into the ground over the years. The Coast Guard’s 1979 study is the source of the 17 million–gallon, 55-acre estimate. From the condition of the oil, the Coast Guard also figured that most of it dated to around 1948, and its high concentration of naphtha, a solvent used at the Mobil refinery until it closed in 1965 but not used by other oil companies in the area, suggested that the primary source of the spill was Mobil Oil. Mobil is a direct descendent of Standard.

In 1979, the Coast Guard recovered close to 100,000 gallons of oil and solvents from the creek, declared its job of protecting the national waterway complete, and then handed over the cleanup responsibility to the city and the state. Those authorities then pressured Mobil and the other oil companies with storage facilities in the area (Amoco, which is now BP, and Paragon Oil, which is now Chevron) to do something—anything—about the oil still surfacing in Newtown Creek. So the companies worked with the Coast Guard to create a simple system of containment booms and recovery basins to catch the oil still seeping into the water. But no one was required to do anything about the vast lake of oil underground until 1990, when Mobil formally agreed to start pumping it out—albeit very slowly. Best-case scenario: The reservoir wouldn’t be dry until 2026. And until Seggos came along, that was the most anyone could expect.

A vast underground explosion sent 25 manhole covers shooting into the Greenpoint sky.

The lawsuits that ExxonMobil is fighting right now are the result of a perfect storm of rising environmental awareness, rising real-estate values in Greenpoint, and Seggos’s diligence. He spent much of 2003 sending Freedom of Information Act requests to the DEC. He learned that, despite a danger that seemed obvious to Seggos, no one had ever tested the neighborhood to find out whether toxins from the oil had made their way up through the soil. So in 2005, Riverkeeper drilled a test hole in industrial Greenpoint and analyzed the soil itself. They found dirt so polluted with methane and benzene that had they dug it out with a shovel and tossed it on the ground, they could have been found guilty of the illegal dumping of toxic waste. Riverkeeper immediately informed the state. “They were furious,” says Seggos of the state officials. “They told us never to drill again.”

Finding carcinogens just a few feet down was, for Seggos, the smoking gun. It connected the anecdotes he was hearing about cancer clusters in Greenpoint to the blob below. But he also realized that the fight was more than a small nonprofit was equipped to handle. So he alerted the Los Angeles–based firm of Girardi & Keese, which flew in Erin Brockovich to whip up about 60 Greenpoint residents at the Swinging Sixties Senior Center. “I’m here to get people motivated,” she told the crowd in December 2005. “Nothing but good can come from this.” Marc Bern of the Manhattan-based personal-injury firm Napoli Bern Ripka apparently agreed. He also made the pilgrimage to Greenpoint, pitching to about 100 people at an American Legion hall, a short stack of retainer contracts at his side. He is claiming $58 billion in damages.

The giant numbers made the papers and focused the state’s attention on the problem: The DEC also made the trek out to Greenpoint, but the department came with representatives of the oil company at its side. In January 2006, in the packed Princess Manor catering hall on Nassau Avenue, DEC officials assured a raucous crowd that the companies were doing everything possible to clean up the neighborhood. Health studies weren’t necessary; residents had no cause to worry.

That didn’t satisfy the audience. “If this was anywhere in Manhattan, you would be acting much quicker, I’m sure,” scolded Irene Klementowicz, the president of Concerned Citizens of Greenpoint, during the question-and-answer period. But the most searing comment came at the very end: “About 30 times tonight, people have asked questions of the oil companies, and you, the state, have answered them,” a well-dressed man called out angrily. “We get the impression that the DEC works for the oil companies, not for the people,” he shouted to exclamations and applause.

The dramatic show of public outrage—not to mention an election—did the trick. When state officials returned to Greenpoint in September, it was evident that the state had been shamed into changing its tune. Lawyers from the attorney general’s office, which in June had started its own investigation, all but apologized for past inaction and assured the crowd that a brand-new team was on the job. The DEC admitted there were toxic vapors below buildings, pavement, and soil and that they could migrate into indoor air. The department implored residents to let the state test their homes for toxins. This time, the A.G.’s lawyers promised, they would make ExxonMobil fix any problems they found. “I work for Eliot Spitzer,” said Bob Hernan, an assistant attorney general who had been recently assigned to the case. “As some of you know, we’re not shy about suing people.”