If the community meeting in Greenpoint a couple of months ago to discuss the 50-acre underground oil spill in the neighborhood looked like a scene out of the movie, “Erin Brockovich,” it didn’t hurt that Erin Brockovich was addressing the crowd -- not Julia Roberts, but Brockovich herself, the actual fighter against corporate pollution.
"I'm here to get people motivated," she reportedly told the 60 or so residents at the Swinging Sixties Senior Center. "Absence of information means lack of choice."
It is new information about the oil spill that has motivated local activists to make new choices in the long-time struggle over the oil spill -- including a new Brockovich-like class action lawsuit.
An Oil Spill Larger Than The Exxon Valdez
Residents of Greenpoint do not need a reminder from
the president about our nation’s costly oil addiction. Greenpoint
is to oil trafficking what the Bowery is to drugs and alcohol -- a
neighborhood still recovering from its wild past one day at a time.
Oil had been unloaded onto, and stored in, this Brooklyn neighborhood since the
days of John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil monopoly. Most of the oil terminals and refineries that filled the
southern banks of Newtown Creek are long gone. But the hangover remains.
In 1978, during an aerial survey of the creek, a Coast Guard
helicopter detected a floating oil plume that eventually led to the
discovery of a 17 million gallon underground oil spill. Traced back
to storage tanks at an old Mobil Oil terminal just below Greenpoint
Boulevard, the spill, composed largely of crude oil along with some
refined product, had worked its way down to the water table, creating
an oil-covered lake roughly 40 feet below street level that spread out over more than 50 acres beneath industrial and residential
“We’re talking about an oil spill larger than the Exxon Valdez,” says
Basil Seggos, chief investigator for the environmental watchdog
Riverkeeper, Inc., alluding to the 1989 oil tanker that dumped 11
million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound.
So far, that recovery process has barely reached the half-way point.
Although cleanup efforts started in the early 1990s, they didn’t
really take off until 1995 when Mobil engineers completed
construction of a underground pump and pipeline system along Meeker
Avenue. Since then, ExxonMobil, inheritor of the Mobil system, British
Petroleum, owner of an adjacent terminal site, and ChevronTexaco,
former owner of an 11 acre terminal site that has since been
converted into a warehouse facility, have extracted a combined 8.7
million gallons according to a state Department of
Environmental Conservation Web page devoted to the cleanup effort.
Recovering the remaining eight million gallons could take another 20
years, at least, according to
a January 25th town hall meeting featuring representatives from
ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco and the New York State Department of
Possible Toxic Contamination And A New Lawsuit
Beyond that, there is the question of secondary contamination. After
Department of Environmental Conservation tests failed to detect
dangerous levels of gaseous methane in soil samples taken around the
site, Riverkeeper commissioned its own tests last summer. Seggos says
the samples turned up not only high levels of methane but also toxic
levels of benzene, a carcinogen.
That discovery has cleared the way for an entirely new development.
Girardi and Keese, a Los Angeles law firm best known for its association
with the 1996 class action lawsuit that became the basis for the 2000
film “Erin Brockovich,” signed on as legal representative for a group
of Greenpoint residents who have sued ExxonMobil. It was in a bid to recruit additional plaintiffs that the firm flew in Brockovich, a consultant on the case, to address Greenpoint residents at the December community meeting.
Stan Alpert, principal of the Alpert Firm and a local consultant to
Girardi and Keese, says the case will follow the lines of recent “toxic
tort” cases in that the spill, in the process of crossing property
lines, constitutes a form of chemical trespass for which local
residents who can prove a decline in health or property value may
soon be able to gain restitution.
Rockefeller’s Revenge, or The Rise Of The Toxic Tort
Pioneered by Brockovich and Girardi in their successful $333 million
lawsuit against Pacific Gas & Electric, a suit alleging that the
California utility knowingly released a deadly form of
chromium into the environment, toxic torts have matured quickly over
the last decade, thanks to two major trends: weak government regulation
of polluting industries, and corporate consolidation.
In the case of Greenpoint, weak government regulation has created a
situation in which ExxonMobil and other companies have been allowed
to drag out the clean-up process, thus magnifying the number of
people affected by the spill. Currently, ExxonMobil and British
Petroleum are performing their share of the clean up based on a
series of consent orders negotiated with the Department of
Environmental Conservation. According to the consent orders, each
company has accepted responsibility for violating state laws
forbidding the discharge of oil into groundwater and local waterways.
They have also accepted the total cost for remediation. What they
have not accepted, however, is the liability for damages caused, a
concession that, if forced, might have led to brisker clean up and
Corporate consolidation, meanwhile, has created a situation in which
determining ownership of the land, refineries and storage tanks -- a
process that in 1979 might have meant going through the records of a
few dozen major corporations -- now boils down to going through the
records of three major corporations: ExxonMobil, British Petroleum,
and ChevronTexaco. Call it Rockefeller’s revenge: Ninety-five years
after the breakup of the Standard Oil monopoly, the subsidiaries
formed by that breakup have rejoined to the point that plaintiffs can
pin liability on a manageable set of corporations.
Whether or not attorneys do succeed in pinning liability on
ExxonMobil depends on whether a local jury is willing to associate
local cancer rates in Greenpoint with oil-based carcinogens. The
neighborhood’s two-century history as a center of heavy industry all but
insures that ExxonMobil attorneys will have plenty of other causal
factors to cite.
The Mess Continues
In the meantime, the company sticks by its pledge to
clean up the mess.
“We’ve been here since 1979,” says ExxonMobil spokesman Brian Dunphy.
“I think it shows we’re committed to mitigating the site.”
For Alpert, however, the 27 year stretch between detection and 50
percent cleanup merely confirms that neither ExxonMobil nor the state
are in much of a hurry to see a tough job through. Alpert credits
Riverkeeper and last summer’s soil sampling as the true impetus for
both the civil lawsuit and the town hall meeting held by the Department of Environmental Conservation.
The department “dragged its feet from 1978 to 1990, and from 1990 to 2006,” says
Alpert. “Only in 2005 when Riverkeeper comes along and does these
tests and finds explosive vapors in the soil and toxic levels of
benzene, do they wake up. Even when they wake up, they put a lawyer
up in the meeting who sounds like he’s speaking on behalf of the oil
companies. Something is wrong with that set of facts.”
Maureen Wren, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental
Conservation, says her organization isn’t in the business of
defending oil companies. It is in the business of informing citizens
on the state of the cleanup process. “The purpose of the meeting was
to enable individuals to ask questions and learn more about the
cleanup activities,” Wren responded via email. “DEC representatives
explained at the outset of the meeting, and several times during it,
that no questions related to company responsibility or other
litigation-related issues would be entertained because of time
restrictions and ongoing negotiations and lawsuits with the parties.”
Wren says her agency will continue to hold meetings on the topic in
future months in an effort to give Greenpoint residents additional
chances to learn more about the clean-up process.
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