Monday, April 02, 2007

My Article in Spring Sierra Atlantic

Cuomo Sues Exxon to Clean Up Nation's Largest Oil Spill--After Brooklyn Endures 50 Years of Delay

Article by Rachel Treichler in Spring 2007 Sierra Atlantic

The waters contaminated by the largest oil spill in the US are not pristine beaches. The waters contaminated by this spill are mostly invisible because they are mostly underground, floating on the aquifer under the homes and businesses, schools and churches of Brooklyn. But the toxic effects of the spill on the health of the people who live and work above it, and the damage it has done to soils in large areas of Brooklyn and to the potability of the Brooklyn aquifer are far from invisible. The millions of gallons of oil floating on the Brooklyn aquifer also present a continuing threat to the New York harbor, should the geological barriers holding the oil on the aquifer be breached.

The people of Brooklyn have suffered more than 50 years of delay and obstruction in cleaning up the spill by Exxon Mobil. Its predecessor corporation, Standard Oil, owned the petroleum storage tanks near Newtown Creek in Greenpoint, Brooklyn that were breached by a gas explosion in 1950. The full size of the spill is not known. If proper studies are done, it may turn out the spill is even larger than the 17,000,000 to 40,000,000 gallons currently estimated and extends under a large area of Brooklyn.

Given the many years of delay, the announcement by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo in February this year that he has filed intent to sue letters against Exxon Mobil and four other companies to force them to clean up the spill and repair environmental damage is extremely welcome news. The lawsuits will seek scientific testing and investigations to determine the full scope of the contamination, increased recovery of underground oil, cleanup of contaminated groundwater and soil, restoration of Newtown Creek, damages for the injuries to the affected natural resources, and unspecified financial penalties. Intent to sue letters are required as a precursor to suit under the Federal Clean Water Act and the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The attorney general’s office has announced that when suit is brought, the State will also likely assert legal claims under the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA, also known as Superfund), the federal Oil Pollution Act, the State’s Navigation Law, and the State’s Environmental Conservation Law, and assert claims of public nuisance .

Conducting further studies may be valuable, but they should not be used as a tactic to delay implementing an all-out clean up of the spill. It was obvious to Exxon Mobil in 1950 when the explosion occurred that millions of gallons of its petroleum products had sunk onto the Brooklyn aquifer, but the company did not clean up or disclose the spill. If the spill had been cleaned up as soon as it occurred, the damage would have been far less extensive.

Even after the spill was discovered leaking into Newtown Creek in 1978 by the US Coast Guard, the company denied liability for years. So far, Exxon Mobil has cleaned up only what is easiest to do, siphoning oil from thick layers of free floating petroleum nearest the original site of the spill. The company’s profits from selling this oil on the market substantially exceed its clean-up expenditures.

It is outrageous for Exxon Mobil, the largest corporation in the world, with profits of $36 billion, to continue delaying an all-out clean up of the spill. Had the spill been cleaned up in a timely fashion, much of the damage caused by the petroleum over the last 57 years would have been avoided. Three generations of people in Brooklyn would not have had to live with toxic petroleum vapors seeping into their homes and businesses and damaging their health. 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 stopped in 1947 because the depression in the water table caused by extensive pumping was causing sea water to flow into the aquifer. Once the aquifer replenished itself, as it did by 1978, pumping could have resumed if the petroleum contamination from the spill had not contaminated the water.

The dangerous health effects of benzene and other chemicals identified in the spill are well known. The all-out effort to clean-up the spill needs to begin now. If it does not, criminal charges should be brought. New York needs to show that large corporations are not above the law.