Poison Under the Pavement

World Reports

Beneath the asphalt: 17 to 30 million gallons of petroleum products

In one of the largest cities in one of the richest countries in the world, millions of gallons of oil have been spreading under peoples’ homes for the past 50 years because an oil company has been too busy making profits to clean up its toxins. The story of Greenpoint, New York is one of greedy corporations, environmental crusaders, ineffectual government, and innocent victims dying from cancer.

Here, sloshing under the asphalt in this working class neighborhood are 17 to 30 million gallons of wayward petroleum products. The vapors contain dangerous levels of explosive and carcinogenic chemicals, including methane and benzene. This environmental disaster is one of the largest oil spills in Northern America, dating back to 1950s. It is at least 50 percent bigger than the infamous Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1989. Elected officials have known about the spill since at least 1978, when a US Coast Guard noticed a rainbow plume emanating into Newtown Creek. Back then, the fuel-leaking tanks were property of Mobil, Amoco (now BP), and Paragon Oil (now ChevronTexaco). For the next decade, nothing was done to clean up the mess. Six months after the Exxon Valdez spill (and the resulting negative publicity for the entire oil industry), the oil companies entered into consent orders requiring them to accept responsibility and pay for the costs of remediation. But the orders were worded so vaguely that they failed to set any deadlines or benchmarks for removal, or make the companies accept liability for damages they had caused. Environmentalists now argue that such consent orders were used industry-wide as a cover to preclude more aggressive enforcement of state and federal environmental laws.

Not much in the way of clean-up efforts happened until 1995, when Mobil built an underground pump and pipeline under Meeker Avenue (Exxon acquired Mobil in 1997 for more than $80 billion). Since then 8.7 million of gallons of oil have been removed – but only 3.5 million gallons came from the 44 residential acres. The rest came from the original 11-acre site of Mobil’s tanks, now a BP Amoco fuel storage terminal. On January 25, state officials shocked Greenpoint residents by revealing that under the current plan, it will take at least 20 more years to remove the rest of petroleum. The plan does not require any clean-up of contaminants that seeped into the soil, dissolved into the banks of Newtown Creek, or dispersed through the aquifer.

At Greenpoint community meetings, people are sharing stories of numerous relatives and neighbors dying of cancer. A retired NYPD detective said that 18 people have died from cancer on one block of Diamond Street; there are five cancer survivors. The state Health Department has not conducted any health studies in Greenpoint, and according to its spokeswoman Dawn Hettrick, none are currently planned. Nonetheless, the Department says there are no cancer clusters detected in neighborhood (the Department does not explain how it could detect something if it’s not looking). ExxonMobil does not believe that there are any “health or safety impacts” from the spill either. Riverkeeper, Inc., a non-profit environmental group started by Robert Kennedy, has conducted soil tests that indicate that the levels of benzene in the fumes from the spill are 10 to 1,000 times greater that the EPA-allowed limits, a fact contradicted by State-sponsored soil studies.

In October 2004, dissatisfied with the pace and the quality of clean-up efforts, Riverkeeper launched a federal lawsuit against ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, and BP to force a more thorough, faster remediation of the spill. Soon after, real-life environmental star Erin Brockovich came to organize Greenpoint residents to join a parallel lawsuit in state court. The state lawsuit is a “mass action,” handled by Los Angeles law firm Girardi & Keese, and it seeks compensation for damage to health and property of the individual homeowners above the spill. Both lawsuits claim that the spill creates toxic levels of carcinogens, including benzene, toluene, mercury, cadmium, PCBs, lead, and methane. NYC Council members David Yassky and Eric Gioia, as well as Marty Markowitz, president of Brooklyn Borough, have joined the Riverkeeper lawsuit, bringing additional political clout to the issue.

Basil Seggos, chief investigator for Riverkeeper, says that there still are “residents who live on top of the spill and have no idea,” and the state Department of Environmental Corrections “is doing a terrible job of protecting the environment.” He calls the proposed 20-year-plus clean-up plan an “outrageous estimation,” and argues that ExxonMobil should be using more aggressive oil-removal technology. According to Seggos, the DEC and the companies’ own data admits that they will be leaving oil – along with contaminants – in the ground. Stan Alpert, local council for plaintiffs, says that DEC has limited resources and the attorney for DEC would rather spend his energy protecting the companies.

A stack of toxic pipesphotos.com

The official estimate is that 8.7 million of gallons of oil have been removed so far, about half of the detected spill. The environmental advocates argue that these figures are misleading. “The more oil is removed, the more they find,” says Seggos.

Alpert says that Greenpoint residents have already spent the past 50 years waiting for a full and proper clean-up, breathing toxic fumes, and risking methane explosions. Maureen Wren, the spokeswoman for DEC, assures that “all areas impacted now will not be impacted as the clean-up is going on and will be getting incrementally smaller.”
DEC’s Web site describes the remediation method used as “a dual-pump free product recovery system.” This means the system removes free product, or oil that’s floating on top of the water table, along with some contaminated groundwater. According to Riverkeeper, the same technology is used to extract oil, and ExxonMobil is actually shipping removed oil to New Jersey, refining and selling it. It is indeed a marketable product. Northeast of Greenpoint has been home to petroleum industries for nearly 140 years. Unfortunately for Greenpoint homeowners, oily water doesn’t fly off the shelves: Martha Stewart is not going to do a special on growing petroleum-scented basil. Just like the rest of Americans, they are paying for the nation’s past and present dependence on oil, in high prices at the gas pumps, in enormous heating bills, and in their health.

At a recent town hall meeting, a woman from one of the back rows said “If this was on the East Side, it would have been cleaned up years ago.” Is she right? Does it take a big plaintiffs’ law firm to get not just compensation for the affected people, but to at least have a proper investigation of the extent of the spill, sampling, and health studies done? Is it only the threat of being slapped with a huge fine that will motivate a thorough clean-up? Or is ExxonMobil above the law?

At the end of January, ExxonMobil announced its earnings for 2005. At $36.13 billion, it is the largest ever annual profit for an American company. Between 1882 and 2002, ExxonMobil’s operations and the burning of its products released an estimated 20.3 billion tons of carbon, or about five percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. ExxonMobil is the only oil company remaining in Arctic Power, a lobbying organization dedicated to opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. ExxonMobil spokesman Brian Dunphy says that the company takes its environmental responsibilities “very seriously.” Last month, ExxonMobil’s lawyer caused open laughter in a courtroom when he argued that the $5 billion punitive fine meant to compensate Alaskan Natives, fishermen, and others affected by the Valdez spill was unnecessary because everything was back to normal in Prince William Sound. The company has been fighting the fine since the court ordered it in 1994.

Elena Agarkova is a volunteer with Baikal Watch, a project of Earth Island Institute.

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