Editor's note: This story was originally published in Plenty in February 2008. MNN.com is reprinting it now because of the useful resource information it provides. 

When Laura Hofmann steps out her front door and takes a deep breath, she’s sometimes overwhelmed by petroleum vapors. Hofmann, a lifelong resident of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, doesn’t live next door to a gas station; she lives beside the nation’s largest oil spill.

An estimated 17 million gallons of oil (at least one-and-a-half times the amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound in 1989) from spills at ExxonMobil’s Greenpoint refineries and storage facilities soaked into the ground over the last century, creating a 55-acre plume of oil floating on top of groundwater 30-40 feet underground. Residents of this working-class neighborhood have been living with the spill for more than 50 years, enduring vapors seeping into some basements and wafting through the streets from nearby Newtown Creek, which the petroleum trickles into. A cleanup has been going on for three decades, but only about half of the oil has been removed. Only recently has the government sought to force accelerated remediation.

“Someone said that if we had otters swimming in Newtown Creek covered in oil, we’d have a better chance of getting this cleaned up, and cleaned up quickly,” says Hoffman. “It’s a sin.”

ExxonMobil and its predecessors have been operating in Greenpoint since the 19th century. The first inkling of the spill came in 1950, when gasoline from an undetermined source leaked into the sewer system and ignited, blowing 25 manhole covers 30 feet into the air and shattering windows in hundreds of Greenpoint homes. The problem stayed underground until 1978 when a Coast Guard helicopter pilot noticed an oil slick on Newtown Creek, prompting an investigation. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation took responsibility for overseeing the cleanup, and between 1978 and 1989 a mere 770,000 gallons of petroleum were recovered using wells to suck oil out of the ground; the product is sent to a recycling facility.

In 1990, following the Exxon Valdez spill, the state required ExxonMobil to recover the petroleum, but the company wasn’t given a deadline, and didn’t have to pay any penalties, clean up the soil or the creek, or conduct a public health study.

After decades of waiting for the state or the company to remove the oil, environmental groups and residents turned to the courts. In 2004, environmental nonprofit Riverkeeper filed a lawsuit against ExxonMobil to clean up the soil, groundwater, and Newtown Creek; Hofmann is a co-plaintiff on that lawsuit, as are several local elected officials. Since then, other residents have filed two more lawsuits. But not until last summer did the state take what residents view as substantial action. In July, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo brought suit against ExxonMobil and four other companies to speed up the remediation and force them to pay millions of dollars in fines. A US District Court hearing on the matter is scheduled for April 16.

“Now that the state is on same page, it will be much easier in the long run to watchdog the cleanup and to force upgrades when necessary,” says Basil Seggos, chief investigator for Riverkeeper. “But keeping the oil out of Newtown Creek and pumping it out of the ground faster is just the tip of the iceberg. The groundwater and soil contamination and the soil vapor issue still need to be addressed.”

To accelerate oil removal, ExxonMobil is currently adding 10 new recovery wells, bringing its total to 21. Chevron and BP also have several recovery wells pulling petroleum from the underground plume.

“We’re going to be there until the job is done, and is done right,” says ExxonMobil spokesman Barry Wood, adding that the company has removed about 6.5 million of the 9.5 million gallons of oil that has already been pulled from the ground; at least 8 million gallons remain. “We want to make sure nobody’s safety or health is compromised by the plume.”

Seggos, Hoffman, and others say that simply removing the oil from the plume isn’t enough to address health concerns. Though the EPA’s sampling of 52 homes above the plume last year found no indoor vapor exposure, tests performed by Riverkeeper revealed that the spill has released toxic vapors like benzene into Greenpoint. According to the CDC, long-term exposure to benzene can cause leukemia, and the immediate effects of inhaling benzene and other components found in petroleum, such as toluene and xylene, include drowsiness, dizziness, headaches, nausea, and irritation to the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract.

“A lot of people in this neighborhood are sick. Cancers, lupus,” says Hoffman, who suffers from lupus. “I don’t know if it’s the oil spill. There was an incinerator, and there’s a sewage treatment plant and other industry. We want a health study so we can find out if the spill is affecting people’s health. We don’t want this to affect the next generation.”

For the last year, Hofmann and other residents have been working with the state Department of Health to design a health study. It will be the first undertaken specifically to establish a link between residents’ health and the oil spill, but there have been other indications that residents are ailing. A New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene study conducted in 1992 and 1993 found that the neighborhood adjacent to the spill has significantly higher rates of leukemia than the rest of the city. When it comes to cancer, pinpointing specific environmental factors and assessing exposure is difficult because determining the exact substances people were exposed to, the duration of the exposure, and individuals’ natural and acquired sensitivities is an enormous challenge.

Residents aren’t only potentially affected by the spill on land—those that use Newtown Creek can also be exposed to petroleum and its vapors. The 3.5-mile creek separates Brooklyn and Queens, and is among the most polluted waterways in the US. On a typical day, visitors to the creek will likely see used condoms, plastic bags and bottles, tires and partially submerged stripped cars, treated sewage, and an oil slick. They won’t see much of the once-abundant wildlife, except for striped bass or blue crab at the mouth of the creek. The waterway’s bottom is coated with heavy metals and PCBs from a copper refinery, cement from a factory, and raw sewage and garbage that is automatically dumped into the creek via overflow pipes during heavy rains.

Yet that’s where Bill Schuck goes kayaking. He lives in a building abutting the creek, and says he often sees neighborhood children swimming in the polluted water in the summer and people fishing along the banks. The oil spill is only part of the problem, says Schuck, but he believes ExxonMobil has a responsibility to clean it up. That’s why he’s a co-plaintiff on the Riverkeeper lawsuit.

“It’s going to be a longtime before it’s a swimmable, fishable body of water,” says Schuck. “But even if it doesn’t get there in our lifetime, it is getting better, and we’re going to keep pushing.”

Story by Alisa Opar. This article originally appeared in Plenty in February 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

The biggest US oil spill you never heard of
An estimated 17 million gallons of oil (at least one-and-a-half times the amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound in 1989) from spills at Exx