Gotham Gazette

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Erin Brockovich in Greenpoint

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 properties.

“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.

Stalled Clean-Up

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 Environmental Conservation.

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 reduced exposure.

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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