Post By Voon Chen Li
Published: September 30, 2007
The Exxon Valdez disaster is certainly the most notorious oil spill in the United States — a single, terrible accident that poured 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound 1989, causing grievous damage to Alaska’s waters and beyond. But it is not the largest. In terms of volume it cannot match the steady seepage of oil into Newtown Creek, the polluted waterway that separates Brooklyn from Queens.
The Newtown Creek spill has not received anywhere near the response that followed the Valdez incident. The cleanup has been haphazard and ineffective, hampered by weak enforcement, and residents have been left in the dark about potential health effects.
A report this month from the Environmental Protection Agency suggested that the Newtown spill may be twice as large as first believed — some 30 million gallons, nearly three times the size of the Alaska spill. It has polluted the 4-mile strip of waterway and some 55 residential and commercial acres around it, gathering in subsurface reservoirs, mixing with groundwater, creating toxic vapors and and seeping, slowly but inexorably, into the creek. One major concern is the reported leakage of chemical vapor into homes.
The report was welcome, but far too long in coming. And it did not go far enough. Representatives Nydia Velazquez and Anthony Weiner, two members of Congress whose districts are affected, and who fought for the study, were understandably disappointed with the results. Both lawmakers are studying ways to speed the cleanup and assess health risks.
The spill is believed to have originated 57 years ago, when oil leaked from refinery tanks owned by Standard Oil, a corporate predecessor to Exxon Mobil. It went unnoticed until a Coast Guard helicopter noticed a plume, which led to the discovery of an huge pool of oil at the creek’s bottom.
Last month, the state attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, filed a lawsuit against Exxon Mobil, and warned several other companies they are also under scrutiny. Riverkeeper, an environmental group, filed its own lawsuit in 2004. Although ExxonMobil entered into a cleanup agreement with the State Department of Enviromental Conservation in 1990, the department has not been aggressive in enforcing its e terms. .
Given the new evidence, the D.E.C. should acknowledge that the deal has been a bad one for the state and for the more than 500 residents and businesses near the creek and really start pushing the companies. Having acknowledged the severity of the problem, the the federal government must also take a more active role. At Newtown Creek, there’s plenty of work for everyone — beginning with the polluters.