Oil Spill Under NYC's Olympic Village Site

Shia Levitt reports on the controversy surrounding a decades-old oil spill beneath the Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint. The neighborhood has been targeted as the possible location of the Olympic Village if New York City wins its bid to host the Summer Olympic Games in 2012.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Millions of gallons of oil, more than the size of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill, are floating in the groundwater under a Brooklyn neighborhood. The neighborhood is Greenpoint across the East River from Manhattan and where New York hopes to build its Olympic village if it hosts the 2012 Games. Shia Levitt reports.

SHIA LEVITT reporting:

It's springtime in this quiet residential area in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Children are playing ball and riding bikes in the street. But spend any time in this neighborhood and you'll hear residents complain.

Ms. JOANNE HANLEY (Resident): Sometimes, you know, you'll come out, and all of a sudden, `Eww, what's that smell?' you know. I don't know where the smell comes from, but it's horrible.

Mr. LARRY PLADINO (Resident): If we get a lot of rain, the catch basins and the drains all over, not even just in Greenpoint, you can actually smell gasoline, like as if there was gas poured down the sewer.

LEVITT: Residents Joanne Hanley and Larry Paladino live in two of about 100 homes that sit atop one of the largest urban oil spills in America. Oil began leaking from storage tanks at a former Mobil Oil refinery more than 50 years ago and leaked for several decades. Dale Desnoyers is director of environmental remediation at the New York state agency overseeing the cleanup.

Mr. DALE DESNOYERS (Environmental Remediation Director): The protections we have today weren't in effect in the 1920s, and so right now we're basically dealing with industrial practices that occurred 80 or 90 years ago or longer.

LEVITT: ExxonMobil has acknowledged the problem, and in 1990 signed an agreement with the state to take responsibility for the cleanup. The company recovers close to 20,000 gallons of oil each month from water treatment facilities and oil recovery wells like this one in Greenpoint.

(Soundbite of recovery well running)

LEVITT: Although the state has held ExxonMobil primarily responsible for the bulk of the spill removal efforts, other oil companies also had storage tanks in the area. Some of these facilities had leaks, as well, which added to the spill. Today, ExxonMobil, BP and Chevron are involved in the cleanup. Desnoyers explains.

Mr. DESNOYERS: Under New York state statute, unless you can show that the spills are totally unrelated and can be addressed separately, each party is jointly and separately libel. So regardless of whether they contributed 10 percent or 80 percent, they're libel to clean up the entire spill.

LEVITT: But decades after the spill was first discovered, residents of Greenpoint are frustrated and say cleanup has not gone far or fast enough. Greenpoint resident Peter Spagnuolo supervises boat building at the East River Kayak Club. He says he must use caution when he travels up nearby Newtown Creek.

Mr. PETER SPAGNUOLO (Greenpoint Resident): You don't want to capsize or fall out of your kayak there because the water's just nasty. It's oily. It smells bad.

LEVITT: Several residents, together with the environmental group Riverkeeper, are now sewing ExxonMobil, claiming that the company is violating federal environmental laws and not adequately cleaning up the area or protecting people nearby. Basil Seggos is chief investigator at Riverkeeper.

Mr. BASIL SEGGOS (Chief Investigator, Riverkeeper): This spill, this particularly spill, has grown to 55 acres at least, and we think that it actually might be a lot bigger than that. It's migrated under residential, commercial and industrial Brooklyn. There was never an order for the company to conduct a health study or to really dramatically chronicle what the possible impacts of the spill might be. That's certainly one thing we want out of our effort right now, is to make sure that the people living and working in this area are protected.

LEVITT: He says more lawsuits could be filed against the other oil companies, as well.

ExxonMobil would not be recorded on tape, but an ExxonMobil company spokesman says the fuel leaking into Newtown Creek is not ExxonMobil's responsibility. The company's position is that it is fully compliant with its cleanup orders and that the spill is deep enough to pose no concerns for people at surface levels.

Konstantinos Kostarelos teaches oil remediation at Brooklyn Polytechnic University and has been researching the cleanup of large oil spills for 15 years. He hasn't worked on the Brooklyn spill himself, but says this sort of cleanup is often slow and tricky.

Mr. KONSTANTINOS KOSTARELOS (Brooklyn Polytechnic University): Sometimes the most difficult part of the cleanup is actually figuring out where it is. The cleanup itself typically does take on the order of decades rather than years.

LEVITT: Still, he says, it's impossible to clean up a contaminated site entirely by using extraction and pumping techniques like the methods now used by ExxonMobil.

Mr. KOSTARELOS: There's really not much of a hope with this particular technology to get the cleanup to 100 percent clean.

LEVITT: Kostarelos says new methods introduced within the past decade allow for more efficient oil recovery, and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation says they're looking into some of these alternatives.

This Brooklyn oil spill has gained international attention in recent months since New York put in its bid for the 2012 Olympic Games. If New York wins the bid, the Olympic Village--where the majority of athletes will be housed--is slated to be built right next to Newtown Creek. Jay Kriegel is the executive director of the city's Olympic bid committee. He says hosting the Olympics could only help Greenpoint residents.

Mr. JAY KRIEGEL (NYC Olympic Bid Committee Executive Director): One of the wonderful things about the Olympic bid is it does give us the opportunity to pick some of these really complicated, intractable problems that have been around for a long time and get people to focus--not just focus them, but try to figure out what can we do about it and what can we do about it in a reasonably short period of time.

LEVITT: Regardless of which city wins the bid, the plaintiffs in the Riverkeeper lawsuit are hopeful that the Olympics might provide enough attention to bring needed resources to solve the problem. For NPR News, this is Shia Levitt.

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