Newtown Creek. [CREDIT:RIVERKEEPER.ORG]
The Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center slumbers on the southwest bank of Newtown Creek, a brick behemoth in a dusty concrete bed. The sun casts long shadows behind the building, where weeds clump around the weathered skeleton of a wooden boat.
Along the creek’s edge, two quiet figures navigate the cracked cement ledge, surveying the murky water below where several yards of fishing line cut through the surface. Any minute now…. and then it happens: an almost imperceptible tug on the line triggers a choreographed dance as the two figures painstakingly draw their prize—a blue crab—from the depths below.
Manuel Bodón has been crabbing along the banks of Newtown Creek for ten years; his friend, Edwin Rosa, for five. On this brisk October afternoon, they’ve already caught nearly a dozen. In a few hours, most will meet a boiled demise, when Bodón makes a seafood stew.
“I put all kinds of seasoning in there,” he says. “It’s nice and tasty.”
Never mind that his dinner was just taken from a waterway that once coursed with petroleum. While the surface appears cleaner than it’s been in the past, a mile up from Bodón and Rosa, oil continues to seep into the creek, though far less than just a few years ago. But it’s still a glaring sign of a much bigger problem.
For over 50 years, the Greenpoint section of northern Brooklyn has been sitting atop a staggering 17 million gallons of spilled oil—almost 50 percent more oil than was spilled in the 1989 wreck of the Exxon Valdez supertanker in Alaska—and almost nothing has been done to clean it up.
But now, the oily tide seems to be turning. Over the last few years, the spill—which likely originated from several tanks that leaked over the course of nearly a century—has been drawing closer scrutiny, particularly from environmental watch dog groups, law firms, and concerned citizens who all want the cleanup to begin in earnest. And just this past summer, the state Attorney General’s office agreed to investigate the spill. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has announced a thorough study of the site as well.
While uncertainties and mistrust remain, state agencies that once seemed only passively concerned—and sometimes, even protective of the oil companies responsible—are now striving for a more comprehensive clean-up of the oil that has been plaguing not just the creek, but also a middle class neighborhood whose best interests haven’t always seemed to be a priority.
“This is really a ‘tale of two cities.’ One is the community of Greenpoint…[the other is] the story of Newtown Creek, which is a story marked by the largest environmental disaster in the history of New York City, followed by a generation of cover up by the companies that did it, followed by nearly a generation of delay in taking responsibility for what needs to be done,” said Congressman Anthony Weiner, during an October press conference announcing the EPA study. “We’re finally at a point where we can take some action.”
A walk through Greenpoint reveals a town with a split personality. Blocks of row houses interlace commercial streets dotted with Dunkin’ Donuts, T-Mobiles, and ubiquitous Polish bakeries and pharmacies. And glaring at it all is the sooty face of industry: warehouses, factories, and the Newtown Creek Sewage Treatment Plant rising like an alien spaceship, its giant silver “digester eggs”—which break down sludge—shining in the sun.
Greenpoint has been an industrial center for over 140 years. Petroleum refining began in about 1866, and by 1892 most of those refineries—there were more than 50 on the banks of Newtown Creek—had been consolidated into John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust. After the break-up of the trust in 1911, some of the refineries fell under the ownership of the Standard Oil Company of New York (later Mobil Oil Corporation) and became known as the Brooklyn Refinery.
In 1966, the Brooklyn Refinery shut down and was demolished. Mobil Oil sold some of its lots to companies like Amoco (now British Petroleum, which currently owns a bulk fuel storage unit on a ten-acre plot) and used the remaining lots for petroleum bulk storage until 1993, when they closed. Most of the tanks and buildings of the former Brooklyn Terminal have since been torn down.
The Paragon Oil Company—a subsidiary of Texaco (now Chevron Corporation)—also owned property along the creek and operated a storage facility for a decade until 1968, when Peerless Importers, a liquor distributor, purchased the land to build a warehouse.
Those early refineries were careless in their operations, and it’s likely that they started spilling almost as soon as they began operating. Unhampered by environmental laws, few refineries had containment systems to catch spills, so what was released could seep into whatever was around to soak it up.
“It was a very messy industry,” says Basil Seggos, chief investigator of Riverkeeper, an environmental watchdog organization.
The biggest spill of all wasn’t revealed until 12 years after the Brooklyn Refinery shut down. During a helicopter patrol over Newtown Creek in early September of 1978, the Coast Guard noticed an oil slick on the surface of the water near Meeker Avenue, by the Peerless Importers site.
An investigation by Coast Guard-hired contractors Geraghty & Miller, Inc. found that the seep was part of a much larger spill—17 million gallons of oil that had saturated the soil underneath nearly 55 acres in Greenpoint.
The Coast Guard stopped the seep by installing recovery sumps—or basins—to collect the oil, but until 1989, little was done to address what lay beneath the surface. That was the year Exxon Mobil accepted responsibility for the oil under the ground.
In 1990, the company agreed to begin cleaning up the spill, which existed not only under its own former property, but also under Peerless Importers’ land and an adjacent residential area as well. But those agreements, which were supervised by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, were fairly simple and “just really [required] them to take free product out of the ground,” says Bob Hernan, an environmental lawyer with the state Attorney General’s office who is studying the spill.
Nor were the agreements strictly enforced—at least, so it seemed to Greenport residents. In fact, there were times during community meetings when oil representatives wouldn’t even let the state agency representatives talk, according to Christine Holowacz, a member of the Greenpoint Waterpark Association for Parks and Planning. “It was a terrible blow for the community to come into a meeting where you thought you had the agencies that were supposed to protect [you],” says Holowacz.
But over the past few years, high-profile lawsuits and public outcry have spotlighted the spill, and the agencies seem to be doing a turnaround. They’re considering new technologies such as vacuum enhanced recovery—which sucks up oil that’s hard to reach—and they’re also beginning to address an issue that community members charge the state has long ignored: the relationship between the plume and residents’ health.