Monday, July 19, 2010

Brooklyn's Very Own Valdez (times two)

Updated May 2015

The Greenpoint Oil Spill is one of the largest oil spills recorded in the United States, and, interestingly enough, very few people have ever heard of it. I only came across it while searching for a list of the world's largest oil spills. While it doesn't rank up there in the public conciousness with the Exxon Valdez (unless you live in Brooklyn), the spills after Gulf War One or the BP Deepwater Horizon, it is even more frightening in many ways because it took place in a very densely populated urban area.

The Greenpoint neighbourhood of Brookyn, New York City, has for many years had an industrial area located along Newtown Creek which discharges into the Hudson River. From the 1860s, the area became home to the oil refining business. By the turn of the 20th century, many of the 50 smaller refineries had been absorbed into the Standard Oil Trust owned by the Rockefeller family. Standard Oil eventually became Mobil after the breakup of the Trust in 1911 and Mobil became ExxonMobil in 1999. The company used the refineries until 1966; at their peak operation, the complex could refine over 1 million gallons of crude oil daily, producing gasoline, fuel oils and kerosene. Mobil also used the facilities as a bulk storage and distribution centre until 1993. As well, Amoco (now BP) and Paragon Oil (Chevron/Texaco) had facilities in the area. It is assumed that the oil spill did not take place in one event, rather, it took place during nearly a century and a half of industrial activity in the area. Leaking tanks, pipelines and an explosion that destroyed more than 20 acres of the storage tanks in 1919 contributed to the problem. From circumstantial evidence, it appears that ExxonMobil is primarily the responsible party for the majority of the spill volume.

Here's an screen capture from Google Earth showing the Greenpoint neighbourhood. Manhattan is along the left side of the photo and Newtown Creek runs roughly east-west through the centre of the photo. If you zoom in, you can see the abandoned lands where the refineries and tanker farms were located on the banks of the creek and the residential area just to the west of the brownfield.

Here's an air photo showing the Mobil refinery along the banks of Newtown Creek in the 1950s:

On October 5th, 1950 an underground explosion took place in the Greenpoint neighbourhood. The blast was powerful enough to destroy a ten foot section of pavement, shoot manhole covers up to 30 feet into the air, shatter the windowpanes of over 500 buildings and injure three people. Investigations after the explosion showed that gasoline had leaked into the local sewer system and ignited but it would be decades before the massive extent of the problem became apparent.

The spill was re-discovered by accident in 1978 when a U.S. Coastguard helicopter flying over the area happened to notice a plume of black oil flowing out of a bulkhead into Newtown Creek. A boom was set up in Newtown Creek to capture the leaking oil; in the next 6 months, nearly 200,000 gallons of oil was collected. It was originally estimated that an area of 55 acres was contaminated. Studies done in 1979 by the Coast Guard estimated that 17 million gallons of oil-based product consisting of degraded gasoline, naptha and fuel oil had leaked into the underground likely during the late 1940s and that it sat on top of the water table in a layer varying between inches and nearly 25 feet in thickness. In some cases, the hydrocarbons lurked just feet below the ground surface. Fortunately, the toxic layer is capped by an impermeable layer of clay. The source of most of the spill was thought to be Mobil's Newtown Creek refinery. As further studies were done in later years, the affected area was doubled in size and it now appears that up to 30 million gallons of oil and related products may have been spilled. To put the spill of between 17 and 30 million gallons of oil-related product into perspective, the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 released about 10.5 million gallons of oil according to ExxonMobil.

After the study was completed, the Coast Guard installed recovery sumps that stopped leakage to the surface but did not recover any of the spilled product. Initial actions by Mobil involved setting up small scale oil recovery operations in 1979 and working with the Coast Guard at installing containment booms to capture the oil floating in the Newtown Creek. Initially, no cleanup benchmark was set by the State of New York and no penalties were assessed. Meaningful action on the cleanup did not take place until 1990 when the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Mobil agreed to a basic cleanup of the site. Unfortunately, the cleanup only involved remediation of the surface; no obligation was put in place requiring Mobil to clean up the contaminated soils. Meaningful cleanup efforts began on the site in the mid-1990s when Mobil installed new pumps to remove groundwater and contaminants. By 2004, it is estimated that between one quarter and one half of the spill had been recovered although the percentage recovered is difficult to assess. At this point, there are three recovery systems operating in the area, two of the systems are owned by ExxonMobil and one is owned by BP.

The area was tested by an ExxonMobil contractor in 2007 and confirmed the presence of high concentrations of methane gas and benzene. As well, high concentrations of chlorinated solvents have been noted in the area. The concentration of methane gas is high enough in some areas that it has reached the level of being explosive making construction in the area quite dangerous. Fortunately (or not depending on your viewpoint), the EPA reports that in other areas, the methane concentration is so high that insufficient oxygen is present to allow ignition. In light of these discoveries, ExxonMobil has committed to development of a vapour extraction system to reduce the health hazards associated with living in the Greenpoint neighbourhood.

Since 1978, approximately 8.8 million gallons of oil and related products have been recovered from the soils beneath Greenpoint and from Newtown Creek. It is unlikely that more than 70% of the spilled oil products will be recovered and even recovering that amount will take at least another 2 decades.

In February 2007, the New York Attorney General's Office filed a notice of intent to sue ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron and other companies for violating federal acts by creating an endangerment to health and the environment. The non-profit environmental watchdog group Riverkeeper also threatened to sue ExxonMobil in 2004 for failing to properly treat the oil-stripped groundwater they were discharging into Newtown Creek. ExxonMobil reacted by basically shutting down their extraction wells for 3 months until an agreement was negotiated regarding water discharge. In addition, a class action suit has been filed on behalf of Greenpoint residents seeking $58 billion in damages from ExxonMobil, Chevron/Texaco and BP.

While the media was able to grab our attention day after day with the BP Deepwater Horizon spill, this story makes me wonder what lurks beneath the ground in many other areas of North America where refineries have operated for decades. We know that the underground storage tanks in our local service stations can leak and create environmental hazards; decades of refinery spills can add up to something far, far worse.


The EPA report on the Newtown Creek/Greenpoint area can be found here.


  1. Big oil sticking it to the people once again.

  2. One of our writers lives in Greenpoint! Fortunately, it was recently designated a superfund site so hopefully it'll get cleaned up soon. Great post!

    1. Name one superfund site that has been restored to a point of full usability for residence or farming. Oil spills are never "cleaned up". Ground water contamination cannot be reversed.

    2. I was wondering if anyone can clarify "cleaned up".. Is the contaminated soil sent into outer space? Or is it just scooped up then dumped into another location? Probably scooped up and dumped into the Ocean.

  3. Have any studies been done of the health of Greenpoint residents?