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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.