Black Mayonnaise

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.

January 24, 2007

A sickly yellowish light tints the walls of St. Stanislaus Kostka Auditorium on Newell Street, Brooklyn. Several attractive young women instruct incomers to sign their names on a legal pad. Eventually, the room fills with people of all ages, dragging on this Monday evening but still curious, having received a pink flyer printed in Polish on one side and English on the other. The flyer’s headline: Your property may be contaminated and your health threatened due to a massive oil spill in Greenpoint.

Marion Tomczak sits quietly, her bright blue eyes scanning the room. A Greenpoint resident all her life, Tomczak, 77, used to live a block away from one of the tank farms. “Some people [in the community] have asthma. I don’t know if it’s from the oil spill or not,” she says. “I want to see what’s wrong with this whole thing.”

As the crowd settles in, three men make their way onto the stage. One of them, suit-clad, steps forward to address the crowd.

“For more than 50 years, dangerous petroleum products, byproducts, [and] solvents have been leaking underneath your homes, your properties, and into the Newtown Creek,” he booms, adding that the problem “has been left unabated for all of that time without Exxon Mobil and the other responsible parties taking the blame.”

After the presentation, a middle-aged woman, shrouded in a head scarf, approaches the speaker. Her eyes are heavy with despair. A Polish translator explains that the woman suffers from lung cancer. She never smoked.

“[The oil] could be a reason,” says the man in the suit. “I promise to investigate it.”

He is Marc Bern, an attorney from Napoli, Bern, and Ripka, and he’s recruiting Greenpoint residents to join a suit against Exxon Mobil. It’s one of two large lawsuits—in 2005, Giardi and Keese, a California-based environmental firm, also filed a suit against Exxon Mobil, as well as British Petroleum and Chevron (the firm dismissed Chevron from the suit in 2006)—alleging that the oil poses a direct danger both to the lives of citizens and the value of their homes.

Anecdotes of people suffering from asthma and other diseases have been circulating in Greenpoint for years. A news report in the New York Post in mid-October mentioned several cases of a rare bone sarcoma turning up on the same block in Brooklyn, although the area may not be directly located on the plume. (The New York State Department of Health would not return repeated phone messages to confirm the cancer claims.)

One worry about living on the plume is that vapors associated with it might be wending their way into people’s homes. The talk in the community is that “you can get deadly sick from the fumes,” says Francis Flynn, 56, a life-time resident of Hausman Street, portions of which are above the plume.

So far, no study has been conducted to see if there’s a link between residents’ health problems and their homes’ proximity to the spill, although some community members are clamoring for an investigation.

The state Department of Health “would like us to believe that the cancer cases are no different here than anywhere else” says Laura Hoffman, a member of the Newtown Creek Alliance. “Of course, we find that hard to believe,” she says.

Vapors rising up from underground oil spills can enter a home through cracks in basements, crawl spaces, or concrete slabs—and anyone inside can be exposed to them just by breathing the indoor air.

Some of the compounds often found in petroleum vapors have been linked to health problems. One such compound is benzene, which is classified as a known carcinogen by the federal government. Long-term exposure to benzene has been linked to leukemia.

This summer, a contractor for Exxon Mobil conducted a soil vapor study in Greenpoint. It took ten samples from a residential area; of five samples that detected benzene, one was from an area above the oil plume at a level below 5.4 parts per billion. The EPA estimates that breathing just 0.4 parts per billion of benzene in air over a lifetime could cause a risk of one additional cancer case for every 100,000 people exposed.

In a September draft report on the study, the Exxon contractor, Roux Associates, contended that intrusion from vapors was not likely to be a problem for people living on top of the plume. It said that vapors should naturally degrade as they pass through a basement slab. By the time they reach the inside of the house, contaminant levels should be at levels typical of regular indoor air, which for benzene can sometimes range from 1.1 to 6.6 parts per billion, according to an EPA database on indoor air values cited in the Roux report.

Indeed, some household items such as nail polish have benzene in them. “Your average home has plenty of indoor air quality issues,” says Kevin Hale, a geological engineer with the state DEC. “In all probability, most of them don’t come from underground.”

So far, the state has not received any complaints about strange vapors in residents’ homes. But whether or not Roux’s conclusion is actually true remains to be seen. “We always take [Exxon’s recommendations] with a grain of salt,” says Hale. And the only way to be sure that Greenpoint citizens living on or near the plume aren’t being affected by oil-associated vapors is to take soil vapor samples from inside homes; the state is currently carrying out such a study.

If it finds those vapors, the steps to control them are fairly simple. An off-the-shelf radon system—which works by intercepting vapors before they enter a house and venting them into the air outside—could do the trick.

Some people, however, are wary of subjecting their homes to tests in the first place. They’re worried that if vapors are discovered, their property values might go down. Still others are reluctant to participate because they’re part of a lawsuit and are waiting until they get the green light from their lawyers.

“The bottom line is, the community needs to get closure on whether or not [the vapors are] an issue,” says Hernan of the Attorney General’s office. “And the only way to get closure is if they help us.”

But even if vapors turn out not to be an issue in the homes, the smell of oil is still a problem on the creek, where it emanates from oily sheens on the surface.

About the Author

Julie Leibach

BAs in biology/Spanish, from Washington University in St. Louis. Florida-born (ACR, 20+ years!). Love: Hawaii, chocolate, sleep. And also science.



Marc J Bern says:

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

Karen Schrock says:

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

Jayson says:

What a fantastic article. Hard work, lots of research, plus a great writing talent = great work. Congratulations from your number one fan!

Lisa Andruszkow-Lopez says:

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.

Cemre Durusoy says:

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?

trace says:

On Monday April 9th the premiere of the VBS documentary on the Greenpoint Oil Spill will air free of charge on vbs.tv

preview here:

Gary Weingarten says:

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: garyverlaine@gmail.com

Greenpoint Archive says:

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?

Greenpoint Archive says:

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?
Laura Hofmann

My response to you can be found here.

logan says:

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.

Former Resisdent of Bushwick says:

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.

John says:

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

bob dobbs says:

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


The Scienceline Newsletter

Sign up for regular updates.