A Half-Century Old Oil Spill in New York

Seventeen million gallons of oil have percolated beneath Brooklyn, New York's Newtown Creek for at least 50 years. Basil B. Seggos of River Keeper considers the effects on neighborhoods and waterways.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

Yesterday, we spoke to a woman in Alaska who was a plaintiff in the Exxon Valdez case that's before the U.S. Supreme Court this week. At issue, whether Exxon should have to pay punitive damages after the biggest single oil spill ever recorded in North America. Eleven million gallons polluted the waters of Alaska's Prince William Sound.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Today, another story in the oil and water don't mix department, this one less than three miles away from the BPP studios. Seventeen million gallons of oil, maybe even more, have been percolating on and beneath a local waterway for 50 years.

Newtown Creek is a four-mile stretch of waterway in the heart of New York City. It's not pretty and it doesn't smell very good, but the area is still home to thousands of people. Last year, a report from the Environmental Protection Agency suggested that the Newtown spill could be as much as three times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill. Now, despite the scale, cleanup has been slow coming.

Basil Seggos is the chief investigator for the environmental organization River Keeper, which has focused a lot of its work on the Newtown Creek spill. And Basil is here in the studio. Thanks for coming in.

Mr. BASIL SEGGOS (Chief Investigator, River Keeper): Thanks for having me.

STEWART: Good Morning.

Mr. SEGGOS: Good Morning.

MARTIN: First, a little history lesson, if you don't mind. I'm going to give us a little bit, and then I'll ask you to fill in the details. In the late 1800s, Newtown Creek and all of the East River was apparently this hotbed of petroleum refineries. And one of our producers actually dug up this article in an old newspaper from 1891 that reported that fish were dying in this blackened waterway. And the Coast Guard noticed the spill not until 1978. Why was nothing done to stop the contamination?

Mr. SEGGOS: That's a great question. You know, you're talking about 100 years of some of the worst pollution, certainly in the region. And, you know, really, until 1978 and beyond, to have not gotten an aggressive response from the state and federal government on a spill like this, you know, geographically centered in the middle of New York, you know, with views of the entire skyline, the Empire State building, you know, with both boroughs, Queens and Brooklyn right there, with thousands of residents in the area. To have seen a response in Brooklyn so different from the one that we had up in Alaska, where the world kind of made this great shift towards the awareness of environmentalism, to have it happen so differently in Brooklyn, I think can only be traced back to environmental justice issues. I mean, this is a working class neighborhood. It's an industrial community, has been for a long time. And I assume that the sentiment was that, you know, it's a dirty area, and it's business as usual, and we're going to turn a blind eye to it. This isn't a powerful voting block.

STEWART: Was it an open secret? People knew.

Mr. SEGGOS: Oh, certainly. I don't think we could look to the 1978 Coast Guard, sort of, discovery - if you want to call it that, of the spill - as the first time anyone really knew anything about it. Certainly the community had been living with it for years, and there were practices in place at the oil refinery there - which dates right back to Rockefeller, it was the first one ever built - that people were aware of the oil dumping that was going on.

MARTIN: And this also wasn't something that happened in some big dramatic fashion, like Exxon Valdez, right?

Mr. SEGGOS: You're right.

MARTIN: This is a long steady drip, if you will.

Mr. SEGGOS: That's right. Yeah, you didn't have a, you know, a drunken skipper running a huge ship up into the rocks. You had, you know, years, decades, of negligence. You know, small leaks, small spills here and there that, you know, add up to the 17 million gallons. It's 55 acres, which is about 55 football fields of oil, right now under Brooklyn, under commercial residential Brooklyn.

MARTIN: Explain to us, when did you first come across this?

Mr. SEGGOS: We almost stumbled upon it, really, in 2002, when we patrolling New York harbor, really, for the first time in this area, looking for places where people were subsistence fishing - in other words, pulling fish out of the water on a regular basis for food.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SEGGOS: And we took our boat up the creek and came upon this, you know, the entire creek, basically, hundreds of yards long and as wide as a creek, coated with a half an inch of oil. And you just, you know, we had never seen anything like that.

MARTIN: You weren't expecting to find it then.

Mr. SEGGOS: This is 2002. This isn't 1978 or, you know, 1900, modern environmentalism is well underway at this point. And you're seeing, you know, this massive spill only a few blocks really away from the local - the state environmental offices. So that was an indication that something was really going wrong with the enforcement of this case against Exxon, and, you know, really the handling of it at the state level.

MARTIN: You say there's a case against Exxon. Explain Exxon's relationship to this.

Mr. SEGGOS: Sure. Well, I'll just tell you, River Keeper, we have a federal case against Exxon. We have a few local co-plaintiffs and some politicians have joined us. There's two private lawsuits on the case, led by the firms of Girardi and Keese, and Napoli Bern and Rivka, these two national firms with 700 co-plaintiffs, or something like that. So there are these private cases, but now the state has changed its course to a degree and has filed its case, led by Andrew Cuomo, a fairly aggressive federal...

MARTIN: State attorney general in New York.

Mr. SEGGOS: ...yeah, state attorney general - a very aggressive federal case, as well. So Exxon is being blamed for it because they are the corporate successor to Standard Oil. Standard Oil was, you know, probably started the bulk of this spilling, and then it became Mobil, and then it became ExxonMobil.

MARTIN: Well, what's the problem, what's the gist of the lawsuits? Because they have implemented cleanup programs.

Mr. SEGGOS: Well, the cleanup has begun. And our claim is essentially that Exxon is treating Greenpoint as a recovery system, not a remediation system.

MARTIN: Greenpoint?

Mr. SEGGOS: Greenpoint, Brooklyn, sorry, where the spill is.

MARTIN: Very good.

Mr. SEGGOS: The practices that are underway right now are essentially limited to pumping oil out of the ground, not keeping it out of Newtown Creek. Although there are now efforts underway, since our case, to keep oil out of the creek - but pumping oil out of the ground. The issue of soil contamination, ground water contamination in the area, vapors that are traveling off of the spill, through the soil, and upwards towards the businesses and homes. These are the things that aren't being dealt with. And that's why we filed our federal case, to really, you know, force an aggressive cleanup.

And importantly, we also have penalties on the table, too. The Clean Water Act enables to go after penalties in this case. And that's, I think, a very important thing. I mean, yesterday there was a great deal of talk about punitive damages, and I think that's an incredibly important tool that citizens can bring to the table through this Clean Water Act provision.

MARTIN: Give us a sense of what this area is like now. There are thousands of people who are living in this area. There are also, though, walking tours, boat tours, that are happening. That seems to be a little bit of juxtaposition.

Mr. SEGGOS: There is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: (unintelligible) just a little bit, yeah.

Mr. SEGGOS: It feels like a community in great transition. There's lots of hope, lots of energy down there. I mean, the residents of Greenpoint, really, who suffer with this problem, are fantastic people. And, you know, Houseman Street, for example, right on top of the spill, you know, every single house on that street has an American flag right out in front of it. They close the street off, whether legally or not, and have block parties, and everybody knows each other. It's a very tight knit community. You know, they've lived there for a long time, their houses are their best assets.

And, you know, there's all this creative energy now welling up around, you know, Greenpoint. It's not just in this area. The interest in re-developing the waterfront down all along the East River is strong, and it's bringing all kinds of people to the area.

MARTIN: So you bring people to have tours of the oil spill?

Mr. SEGGOS: We do. Well, that's our - our greatest tool at River Keeper, I think, is our boat. Because we can connect people to places on the waterfront and show them things that they would never see by car or by foot. And that's true of Newtown Creek. That's like Newtown Creek in a nutshell. Because in the five years that we've been working there, we've probably taken on more than a thousand, maybe 1,500 people, on Newtown Creek in our boat that only holds about 11 people. And that's a lot of patrolling on our part.

But, you know, once we show people the problem, show them the resource and connect them to a solution, we find that there's a great deal of traction. And that's - I don't care if it's a local activist or a federal politician, it's the same reaction.

MARTIN: Basil Seggos is the chief investigator for the environmental organization River Keeper. Hey, thank you for helping drill down on some of the details of this oil spill that's gone probably very underreported.

Mr. SEGGOS: Happy to. Thanks for covering this.

MARTIN: Thanks very much.

Mr. SEGGOS: Thanks.

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