But if it did, could anyone honestly fill in the dollar amount? No one really knows what the consequences of Greenpoint’s oil spill have been—or will be. It’s like the dust from 9/11, the chemicals dumped at Love Canal, the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, or even global warming. Do we ever really know their costs? Perhaps twenty years from now epidemiological studies will reveal a link between living in Greenpoint and dying of cancer. But even that is merely correlation, not causality. The result is a generalized state of fear that has come to characterize our time. It’s as if the more information we have, the more we realize how little we know for sure. So even if the impact of Greenpoint’s oil spill turns out to be fairly benign, the fear it’s already generated is an impact in itself—an anxiety that might even be monetized by clever lawyers. But in the long run, what is going to happen to Greenpoint will probably be similar to what has already happened to that other great dumping ground, New York Harbor. The fish have returned, but they’re still not safe to eat. Mercury, PCBs, and other poisons still remain entombed in the riverbed, slowly leaching into the environment.
Twelve years after ExxonMobil finally completed its oil-sucking infrastructure, the company says it’s Hoovered 7 million gallons out of the ground. In February, I took a tour of the extraction system—the elaborate maze of underground pipes, eleven petroleum recovery wells, fifteen storage tanks, and 200 groundwater monitors set out across Greenpoint. It’s a pretty impressive setup, a “dual-pump free-product recovery system” that works like this: A groundwater pump extracts water from the aquifer, lowering the water table and creating a “cone of depression.” Then the “free” oil—meaning oil that has escaped the refinery’s clutches—drains into the “cone” to get pumped out and ultimately re-refined, while the groundwater extracted in the process is filtered and discharged into Newtown Creek.
The containment system designed to recover the oil that continues to leak into the creek is less impressive. Just as the Coast Guard discovered in 1978, and Seggos rediscovered in 2002, there is still a rainbow sheen swirling atop the water—but now it’s lassoed by what looks like a deflated yellow plastic tube snaking its way along the shore, and a short black fencelike barrier floating beyond that. Oil absorbers, like a chain of floating white socks, bob on the surface just behind them. They’ve turned muck-brown from the petroleum.
Critics like Seggos want ExxonMobil to step up its pumping in order to create cones of depression large enough to reverse the oil spill’s direction of flow and stop the seepage into Newtown Creek completely. ExxonMobil’s experts disagree, saying that the current setup works just fine. Furthermore, they argue, there is a law of diminishing returns at work: The greater the number of cones of depression created, the less efficient any single cone gets. (Right now, though, that question is moot, because ExxonMobil has temporarily shut down the whole pumping operation after the attorney general claimed the company wasn’t sufficiently cleaning the groundwater before discharging it.)
At the expected rate of pumping, it will take at least twenty years to suck out the rest of Exxon’s “free product” from the ground. And even then, there will still be the problem of the soil left behind: a layer of sandy earth saturated with benzene, toluene, xylenes, methane, tetrachloroethene, and the like. There’s another pumping technique—“air sparging”—that’s proved to reduce benzene and other vaporous contaminants. Air is injected below the saturated soil in order to vaporize trapped hydrocarbons, and is then vacuumed out through strategically placed wells. It’s very expensive, but ExxonMobil argues that it’s not using that technology because it’s not the right method. “Vapor extraction is not appropriate at this time because we don’t want to leave a residual,” says Barry Wood, a spokesman. “Our objective is to first recover as much product as technically possible.”
The truth is that it will be impossible to remove all of the nasty chemicals lurking under Greenpoint. In 1979, the Coast Guard’s engineers concluded that only about 50 percent of the oil and solvents from this spill could ever be cleaned up, though another 20 percent might dissolve or wash away over time. That would leave 30 percent of it trapped under the neighborhood forever. Of course, remediation technology has improved in the past 30 years. But the only way to really scrub the contaminated zone is to dig the whole mess up and replace it with fresh dirt. And you can’t really do that in Greenpoint without condemning the neighborhood.