Monday, June 26, 2006

Exxon's Oil Spill in Brooklyn

Press conference in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, June 24, 2006. Video of Press Conference Hi Res, Dial-Up, Third Planet Video, June 24, 2006, 10 min.

I have called this press conference to commend the DEC's announcement, reported on Thursday, that it has requested the attorney general to take legal action against Exxon for its failure to clean up millions of gallons of petroleum pollution in the Brooklyn aquifer and surrounding soils. I have been working as a Sierra Club activist since 1996 trying to get the spill cleaned up. I look forward to prosecuting the case when I am elected.

This oil spill is a huge and long-standing crime. It is the largest urban oil spill in the United States, two to four times as large as the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. It was obvious to the company in 1954 when a large gas explosion occurred in the Socony-Vacuum petroleum storage facilities that millions of gallons of its petroleum products had sunk onto the Brooklyn acquifer, but the company did not clean up or disclose the spill. Even after the spill was discovered leaking into Newtown Creek in 1978 by the US Coast Guard, the company denied liability for years.

It is important to make Exxon live up to its obligations under New York and federal law to clean up the spill and pay for damages. We need to show that large corporate criminals are not above the law.

Had the spill been cleaned up as soon as it occurred, much of the damage caused by the petroleum over the last 52 years would have been avoided. Two generations of people in Brooklyn would not have lived with the damaging effects of petroleum vapors seeping through their soil, into their houses and into their bodies.

The aquifer might have been restored and available to the city as a source of water. Until 1947 the Brooklyn municipal water system depended on ground water. Pumping had stopped at the time of the spill because the depression in the water table caused by extensive pumping was causing sea water to flow into the aquifer, but as the aquifer replenished itself, pumping could have resumed if the petroleum contamination from the spill had been cleaned up.

As long as the oil remains on the aquifer next to Newtown Creek, there is the possibility of tremendous damage from large flows of oil into the creek and New York harbor. At any time natural or human forces may cause the oil to breach the barriers that have so far confined it underground.

I took my first tour of this area ten years ago with Concerned Citizens of Greenpoint and the Greenpoint Watchperson's office. Our Sierra Club Eco Restoration Committee studied the spill extensively. One of the things we looked at was the Geraghty and Miller report on the spill prepared for the US Coast Guard in 1979.

I would like to show you one of the pages of that report. This map shows the contours on the water table in Brooklyn in 1936 and it shows something very interesting. See this cone of depression in the water table of 35 feet below sea level in the Fort Greene area?

Contours on water table in Brooklyn in 1936. Figure 4 of the Geraghty and Miller Report, Investigation of Underground Accumulation of Hydrocarbons along Newtown Creek, Brooklyn, New York, prepared for the U.S. Coast Guard, July 1979. Altitudes are in feet below mean sea level.

Compare this now to this graphic from the DEC's January 2005 community presentation on the spill showing how the hydrocarbon product floating on top of the water table flows into a cone of depression created by ground water pumping.

The Cone of Depression. Illustration by the DEC showing how the petroleum recovery system is using the cone of depression created by pumping the groundwater to recover the petroleum product. From website/der/projects/reg2/greenpoint/s224087e.pdf

You can see there is a strong possibility that the petroleum products from the Socony-Vacuum spill traveled south into the cone of depression caused by the pumping, and that as ground water levels rose in the years following the spill because the groundwater pumping was never restarted, petroleum contamination may have spread broadly over large areas of the Brooklyn aquifer. There is good reason to think that the damage is more extensive than is generally assumed.

For more information about the spill, visit:
and projects/reg2/greenpoint/. See State Plans to Sue Exxon Over Underground Oil Spill in Brooklyn, NY Times, June 22, 2006.

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