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The Ooze

Plaintiff Sebastian Pirozzi lost his leg to bone cancer at 14.  

Two main issues form the backbone of today’s disputes over Greenpoint’s oil spill. The first is the oil’s effect on the health and safety of Greenpoint residents. Although people don’t drink the groundwater in Brooklyn anymore, in recent years scientists have come to understand that carcinogenic vapors can rise up through soil and into the air and enter buildings through cracks in their foundations. What is that doing to the people who live and work in them? Then there’s the related question of what it does to the value of the property sitting on top of all that vaporous oil.

“One of our big concerns is the danger to the community from the contamination,” says Dan Estrin, of the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic, which is representing Riverkeeper and local activists in their lawsuit. “Vapor intrusion is a major issue. Benzene is just really nasty stuff. We know if you breathe this stuff in over a period of time, you’re going to get cancer. Along with concerns about the environment and endangering wildlife, there are lots of concerns about people breathing in these vapors.”

In fact, the Williamsburg-Greenpoint area has an overall lower cancer rate than much of the rest of New York City. Still, the neighborhood has historically had among the highest incidence of certain cancers, including leukemia in children and stomach cancer in adults. (Benzene is a known cause of leukemia.) And there is anecdotal evidence of cancer clusters: Sebastian Pirozzi, who grew up in Greenpoint, lost his leg to bone cancer at 14. Several of his old neighbors have had the same disease. “It’s not a coincidence,” Pirozzi says. “It can’t be. There are many cancers that can be caused by different things, but bone cancer is different. It’s rare.” Tom Stagg, a retired detective on the border of the contaminated zone, is also convinced. He’s been tracking the number of people with cancer on the block he grew up on. So far, he’s counted 36. Twenty-five, including several children, have passed away. Stagg’s own father died of pancreatic cancer at 53. “It’s not normal,” he says. “I’m sure it’s because of the oil spill.”

The thick, dark ooze is a hydrocarbon cocktail: part degraded gasoline, part fuel oil, part naphtha—the chemical from which napalm takes its name.

ExxonMobil, in its defense, points to a layer of clay underneath the residential portion of Greenpoint that, the company argues, stops the toxic vapors from migrating to the surface. The theory is hotly disputed by other geologists, who argue that the clay is not continuous, and thus is permeable. At this point, the evidence favors ExxonMobil. Last summer, ExxonMobil-funded geologists drilled test wells in Greenpoint, seven to eight feet deep. According to their data, the soil at that level is toxic only in the industrial section, near the creek. The attorney general’s office is also looking for evidence of toxic vapor, but so far has not found benzene inside any of the 52 homes it’s tested (although it did find TCEs in at least one, and PCEs in another). There’s a third batch of tests in the works, this one paid for by attorneys for the plaintiffs: Their results aren’t in yet. However, California-based hydrogeologist Mark Zeko, who is doing that testing, is confident he’ll find the vapor he’s looking for: “Just driving by the excavations down the street, I could smell the hydrocarbons,” he says.

For now, the tests and studies and analyses are ongoing. The A.G. is in discussions with ExxonMobil and will decide whether to go forward with a lawsuit in the next few weeks. Riverkeeper’s suit is largely on hold until that’s decided. But the tort lawyers are pressing on, because even if there is no good evidence that subsoil toxins have migrated into people’s homes, there’s still real money involved: Just the fear of cancer can damage property values. There are plaintiffs like Deborah Spiroff, a 36-year-old artist who invested her life savings in a three-family townhouse on Morgan Avenue. She later learned that her house was smack in the middle of the oil plume. “You can’t tell me that my property value has not decreased,” she says. In a sense, she’s the perfect plaintiff: articulate and afraid. But here too, ExxonMobil counters forcefully. As ExxonMobil’s lawyer, Peter Sacripanti, put it: “If I told you we were going to drill down to the groundwater under Park Avenue, you wouldn’t want to drink that water. But does that affect the value of property on Park Avenue? I don’t think so.” Apartment prices grew faster in Greenpoint than anywhere else in Brooklyn last year—jumping 65 percent.

Officially, ExxonMobil claims there hasn’t been any real harm done. It’s a negotiating stance, but it seems to be backed up by the steadfast belief of ExxonMobil officials that there is no moral crime here. They are being asked to undo the actions (or inactions) of their distant predecessors, some of which date back to a time when industrial waste was barely regulated and people didn’t necessarily know its contents were toxic. After all, the aromatic and fiercely carcinogenic benzene that may now be vaporizing into Greenpoint basements was used as aftershave lotion until the early-twentieth century. Sacripanti reminded me, “A century ago, no one monitored releases or oil spills. So no one really knows where this oil came from.” ExxonMobil didn’t become the most profitable company in the country by handing tort lawyers a blank check.