For nearly 30 years, New York State agencies have known about a 17 million gallon oil spill under the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. Now they’re finally starting to do something about it.
Julie Leibach • January 24, 2007
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.
I would like to compliement Julie and Scienceline for an exceptional job of reporting on the Greenpoint story.My firm is working hard to resolve a disaster that has plagued the Greenpoint area for decades.This situation is a disgrace in such a great City and we know that justice will prevail.
Marc J Bern,Esq
Napoli Bern Ripka
NY NY 10006
212 267 3700
Really great story, Julie. I had no idea this was going on just a few blocks away from my house!
Thank you Julie and Science Line for a good article about the oil spill. As a co-plaintiff in Riverkeepers case against the oil companies, I’m happy to see more and more education about this environmental health disaster.
I’ve been woring on this oil spill as a community activist and resident for the past 17 years, in which time I’ve seen at least 100 articles. This article is the best researched, most factual, least bombastic that I’ve read. Thanks Julie!
Great article. Really well written and informative. For more information on Newtown Creek and the surrounding neighborhoods visit habitatmap.org
What a fantastic article. Hard work, lots of research, plus a great writing talent = great work. Congratulations from your number one fan!
Excellent story! Glad to see it is being kept in the forefront.
As a former Greenpoint resident, I hope that someday this lingering problem will finally be addressed so that more of Greenpoints residents do not have to suffer from the various health problems that arise from living around such a mess.
Don’t let the powers that be forget about this problem.
Thank you for shedding light on a mysteriously little known urban catastrophe that is literally right under our feet. As a greenpoint resident I am curious to find out what the extent of the spill is underground. Has there been any studies done to determine the boundaries of contaminated land?
On Monday April 9th the premiere of the VBS documentary on the Greenpoint Oil Spill will air free of charge on vbs.tv
WOW. I just cannot believe this is happening right here in our backyard — and for 50 years! I just cannot get over it. I am going to check out the Greenpoint Oil Spill documentary on vbs.tv. If its good, perhaps we can do a screening in my Lower East Side bar. Get at me if interested: email@example.com
The oil story is 30 years old and was never hidden. The clean up has been going on since the early 90’s with regular annual public meetings in the community providing updates. Health data shows no abnormal spike in health related issues even after 50 years.
VBS also conveniently leaves out the fact that: 1) More than half of the 17 million gallon spill has already been cleaned up. 2) The remediation process has been going on, with the blessing of local elected officials, since 1992 and continues. 3) The spill is almost entirely under the remote western industrial section of Greenpoint near the East Williamsburg industrial park. There are a few residential streets near Kingsland Avenue that are above the spill, but the vast majority of residential properties are not involved with the spill.
The oil is not oozing up as the video suggests. There are no vapors covering the community as the video suggests. VBS never explains that Dorothy Swick’s problem arose because a neighbor decided to illegally drill for a well in his backyard thirty feet down to reach a contaminated aquifer. Her vapor problem was created by that stupidity, not by any oil bubbling up.
Athough “Toxic Brooklyn” covers some of Williamsburg’s environmental issues in the first two episodes, they also carefully mixed in many clips of people saying how much they love Williamsburg. Even the narrator announces “everyone wants a piece of funkytown”. The video is laced with attractive shots of billyburg shop and boutiques. When it comes to Greenpoint, no such video. Only repeated clips of our notorious Laura Hoffman complaining and lying about the neighborhood. The video never mentions that she is one of only six residents who joined Riverkeepers lawsuit against the oil companies for the oil spill, or that none of the six plaintiffs live above the spill. It is a tragedy to be dealing with an illness in the family, but that does not excuse anyone from spreading hurtful lies about a community. She mentions the Greenpoint Incinerator even though there is no Greenpoint incinerator. The smoke stacks the camera zooms in on are the Con Edison stacks in Astoria. Mrs. Hoffman has been a loud voice protesting the rezoning and waterfront development in Greenpoint. This may explain the purpose of her scare tactics.
Tom Stagg, who is in the video, claims to be living on top of oil even though Newell Street is not where the spill is. What a sloppy fact checking job VBS did with this. You see, Mr. Stagg’s property is adjacent to McGuinness Blvd which went through a major reconstruction including digging all of the old building foundations from the street. No oil was found during the project. Mr. Stagg is not telling the truth. Greenpoint has lower cancer rates than Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights and many other Bklyn neighborhoods. It also has some of the lowest cancer rates in all of nyc/nys. These stats can easily be seen at
But of course that was never mentioned in the video. Just 5 straight episodes dedicated to spreading exaggerations and lies about Greenpoint.
Cutesy shots of hipsters frolicking in Williamsburg juxtaposed against two questionable individuals making claims that people in Greenpoint are falling victim to cancer makes it clear what VBS’s agenda is. All these lies started when Greenpoint won its battle against Community Board 1 and local Brooklyn based politicians to have its East River waterfront (nowhere near the spill) rezoned for residential development. Hope VBS got a nice check for their work. What’s the going rate for slander these days?
Although the community is unanimous in its determination to have the spill completely cleaned up and to reclaim the Newtown creek, some question whether the resurfacing of this nearly 30 year old oil spill story is being used to attack the community after it won its rezoning battle against the wishes of Brooklyn based politicians (and divert attention away from cancer cluster issue in Williamsburg). The media reports have not included the fact that: 1) More than half of the 17 million gallon spill has already been cleaned up. 2) The remediation process has been going on, with the blessing of local elected officials, since 1992 and continues. 3) The spill is almost entirely under the remote western industrial section of Greenpoint near the East Williamsburg industrial park. There are a few residential streets near Kingsland Avenue that are above the spill, but the vast majority of residential properties are not involved with the spill. 4) The Newtown Creek runs along Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Maspeth and Bushwick, but the news articles only mention Greenpoint. 5) The Astral Oil Spill in Williamsburg is not being mentioned. 6) Articles keep talking about what the long term health effects of the spill will be, but ignore the fact that the spill had been around for fifty years already and health data shows no abnormal spike in health related issues.
The Riverkeepers Group renamed the Exxon oil spill “The Greenpoint oil spill”, in what some think was a mean spirited attempt to malign the Greenpoint community. It is curious to name an environmental tragedy after its victim and not the perpetrator. The Exxon Valdez disaster was not called the Prince William Sound’s Alaska Oil spill. The NY Post, in an article on Oct 15th by Angela Montefinise, and Senator Charles Schumer at a press conference on October 16 incorrectly reported that there was a potential cancer cluster in Greenpoint near the oil spill. However, three cases of an extremely rare sarcoma cancer are actually on a single block in Williamsburg (nowhere near the oil spill, not even in the same zip code). One more case is five blocks away and even further away from Greenpoint and the oil spill. In fact, one victim got cancer after residing in the same apartment as an unrelated cancer victim and previous tenant. Sarcomas are a very rare form of cancer, and as reported in the Post article, “You don’t see three in one block,” Dr. Isaac Eliaz, a California expert on metal detoxification, said. “Someone should be paying attention to this.” Dr. Kanti Rai, chief of oncology at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center, agreed that it was “worth an investigation.” Unfortunately, the Senator is calling for a health study with regard to the oil spill and is ignoring a potentially very serious heath disaster in the Williamsburg community. Neighborhood Roots has reached out numerous times to Senator Schumer’s Washington office’s communications director Eric Schultz, and Bret Rumbeck who handles environmental issues for the Senator, with no calls being returned.
Curiously, at the same press conference Congressman Anthony Weiner stated that Greenpoint has a 25% higher asthma rate than the rest of the city. The only problem is that the two health studies done by the state and city show the asthma rate in Greenpoint to be between 25% and 50% lower than the rest of the city along with a 10% lower cancer rate. The State DEC is aware of toxic industrial sites in Willliamsburg near Devoe Street that could potentially be the cause of these rare cancers, but no one is calling for that study. “Instead, there seems to be a no holds barred attack on Greenpoint and a blatant disregard for the health concerns of the Willamsburg community”. One must question whether the recent support of massive residential development in Williamsburg and the historic resistance from Brooklyn politicians (including Borough President Howard Golden) to residential development along the recently rezoned Greenpoint East River waterfront (not near the spill) has anything to do with this dissemination of lies and the timing of these lawsuits.
I’m responding to “Greenpoint Archive”.
I notice that you keep posting the same message in many blogs stating that I am “lying” while you hide behind the name “Greenpoint Archive”. Why not sign your name? Not signing your name says much about your lack of integrity and honesty. Are you afraid that YOU are the person committing slander?
My response to you can be found here.
Dear Anyone who listens to “Greenpoint Archive”
I have been doing a lot of research on this topic since my recent move to Greenpoint, and I have found that “Greenpoint Archive” has gone from website to website promoting this same “pro-corporation” nonsense. Most of what they say is false or skewed at best. I suggest you do your own research instead of listen to them.
To address one point made by Greenpoint Archive….yes, the general cancer rates are the same, or a bit lower in greenpoint than in the other burrows, BUT the leukemia rates are DOUBLE. This is important because benzene is a known cause for leukemia. And it just so happens that the benzene vapor is the main biproduct of oil.
I was living in on Bushwick Avenue around 1980’s and residents of at least 3 buildings reported the drinking water has a oil taste once every too often. I reported to the city and the DEP said they inspected our water and found no problem. I asked ALL three buildings about when did they come by to test, not ONE superintendent of these buildings know of the DEP presences. Is this really related to the oil spill, I am no expert to tell. Do I feel there’s a cover up? Sure do! I think it’s not just at the inspectors level either. I give up calling DEP after I left the area.
I worked at a moving company during the 70’s and 80’s that was down the block from Newtown Creek.Every day when passing this waterway,the only word that came to head was one…Sinful.How could this happen under everyones noses for so many years? The owners of the moving company used to refer to Greenpoint as “Skunk Hollow”,but I never found the humor in that.Nice to see that this long neglected waterway is being cleaned up,but honestly I can’t see it being restored in under 100 years!
Great articles & Nice a site
So are you still all fucked around there or did the lawsuit pay off and you all got money to shut you up….
Today is June 11: 2019 and the source of the weathered petroleum vapors in Greenpoint/ Freeman Street and beyond has not been identified. The current status is that the sewers have been flushed and this might have allowed the source to flow elsewhere. Greenpoint has had months of odor problems and displaced citizens.
All very stressful