This is an excerpt from "The Ripple Effect," an exploration of the threats to the world's freshwater supplies, by Alex Prud'homme. The book is available Tuesday from Scribner. This selection examines the lasting human and social impact of industrial pollution in the soil and groundwater supplies of a heavily populated New York City neighborhood.
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THE MYSTERY OF NEWTOWN CREEK
At 12:05 p.m. on Oct. 5, 1950, a huge explosion rocked Greenpoint, Brooklyn. As shards of concrete and specks of tar flew like shrapnel, a 10-foot-wide hole was ripped out of the pavement, 25 heavy manhole covers shot into the sky, windows in over 500 buildings were shattered and residents stumbled about in an ear-ringing daze. There were a few minor injuries but, remarkably, no one was killed. After examining the crater and interviewing residents, city investigators concluded that the explosion had been caused by petroleum and other industrial pollutants that had leaked from storage bunkers or deliberately been poured into the neighborhood’s soil and water, had pooled underground and spontaneously combusted. The inspectors issued a report on the blast, noting that chemicals had been leaking from industrial sites in Greenpoint since the 19th century. Then they moved on to other things. Nothing was done to clean up the toxins.
The smell of hydrocarbons wafted through the neighborhood; clothes hung out to dry became stained; people and their pets suffered mysterious ailments. Yet for decades no one seemed to notice -- or, at least, the residents of Greenpoint, who were mostly working-class immigrants from insular Polish, Italian, Irish and Hispanic communities, never complained.
As the petroleum and other chemicals continued to seep, they tainted much of the soil and groundwater in Greenpoint undetected. Much more obvious was the rainbow-hued oil slick that floated down Newtown Creek, a 3.8-mile inlet of the East River that runs through the neighborhood and defines the Brooklyn/Queens border: it was slowly but plainly transformed into a winding, ink-black question mark in the heart of New York City.
By 2010, the oil spill beneath Brooklyn was estimated to contain at least 17 million to 30 million gallons of hydrocarbons and other toxic compounds, in pockets up to 25 feet deep, though the exact amount remains unknown. At the low end, this estimate represents 6 million more gallons of oil than the 10.8 million gallons of crude spilled by the Exxon Valdez in 1989, and 9 million more gallons than the oil spills that coated New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Until April 2010 -- when the drill rig Deepwater Horizon exploded, spewing 185 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico -- the Newtown Creek oil spill was the largest in U.S. history.
The contaminants that settled onto the creek bed are so thick and viscous that locals call the sludge "black mayonnaise". The goop is composed of many different types of hydrocarbons, industrial solvents and associated chemicals -- such as naphtha, the chemical after which napalm is named. Some of the chemicals in Newtown Creek, such as benzene -- a byproduct of gasoline refining that is widely used by industry -- or the gasoline additive MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether), are known carcinogens and can cause a host of neurological problems. Investigators have also discovered toxic metals, such as copper and zinc, and compounds associated with gas plants, asphalt companies, hazardous-waste plants and paint manufacturers, in the water and soil.
Older chemicals such as benzene are referred to as legacy pollutants: compounds that were first manufactured years ago, often at a time when their malign effects were not well understood and regulation was an afterthought. Many legacy pollutants are chemically stable, meaning they don’t break down in the environment quickly. There is no simple, cheap way to clean them up. Newer compounds are also found in the creek, such as PCE (perchloroethylene), a colorless liquid used for dry cleaning, and TCE (trichloroethylene), an industrial solvent; both are suspected carcinogens that dissolve in water, and many treatment systems are not equipped to filter them.
The longer such toxins remain in the environment, the more likely they are to cause health problems. They can have short-term effects, causing nausea and dizziness, or long-term effects, such as developmental problems and cancer.
Since the 1990s, Brooklyn has undergone a renaissance. As the Williamsburg neighborhood grew too expensive for artists, they began to migrate north into Greenpoint. The city rezoned much of the area from light industrial to residential, and by 2008 the gritty neighborhood was rapidly gentrifying. Today, more than 100 homes and dozens of businesses are built near or on top of the oil plume. While some residents worry about their health and property values, others ignore warnings and continue to boat, fish and occasionally swim in Newtown Creek.
No comprehensive health studies have been done on the neighborhood. Although Greenpoint has a lower overall cancer rate than much of New York City, it has among the highest incidence of certain kinds of cancer, such as leukemia in children and stomach cancer in adults. Anecdotal evidence suggests unusual cancer clusters are nearby. Tom Stagg, a retired police detective who lives there, told New York magazine that he had counted 36 people with cancer on the block he was raised on. “It’s not normal,” he said. “I’m sure it’s because of the oil spill.”
Awareness of the toxic stew in Brooklyn has grown, leading to numerous investigations, new regulations and two class-action lawsuits. But the enduring mystery of Newtown Creek is, how could such a disaster occur in the heart of the nation’s most densely populated city and remain hidden in plain sight for over a century?
STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE
Newtown Creek is a tidal estuary that once ran through a richly diverse wetland. In the early nineteenth century, farmers barged their vegetables to market along the creek, while aristocrats fished along its marshy shores. In Greenpoint, named after the broad, wet grassland on the Brooklyn side, land was cheap and taxes were low. As the city expanded, the marsh was filled in, paved over and built up. By 1860, New York was the nation’s leading manufacturing center, and over 50 businesses along Newtown Creek processed kerosene, coal, paraffin wax, chemicals, fertilizers and lumber. In 1867, Astral Oil built America’s first large, modern oil refinery there, and Newtown Creek became the center of New York’s petroleum-refining business.
In 1872, John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company arrived in Greenpoint. Originally based in Cleveland, Rockefeller built Standard Oil into a monopoly by acquiring and merging with other companies, including Astral Oil. By 1880, Standard controlled 90 percent of the nation’s refinery capacity. Along Newtown Creek, Rockefeller controlled over one hundred stills, which employed two thousand workers and consumed 3 million gallons of crude oil each week. When petroleum was transported from distillery to wharf to schooner, spillage occurred. Oil evaporated from storage tanks, or leaked into the creek. Companies discarded their unwanted byproducts in the most expedient way possible -- by dumping them into the creek or pouring them into the soil. By one estimate, three hundred thousand gallons of gas, coke residue and other waste was produced along Newtown Creek every week in the 1880s.
“On warm sunny days, a quivering envelope of nauseous fog hangs above the place like a pall of death,” The New York Times reported in 1887. Alarmed, the 15th Ward Smelling Committee took a scouting trip aboard a tug in 1891. As they worked upstream, around manure scows and cargo ships, they noticed mysterious liquids pouring from factories and saw signs that fertilizer companies were dumping their waste directly into the waterway. Passing the dog pound and sausage factories, they were revolted to see heaps of flesh baking in the open sun. Sludge acid, a tarlike substance produced by refineries, emitted an odor that could “nauseate a horse.” The smell grew worse and worse, until they reached the refineries themselves, where “the stenches began asserting themselves with all the vigor of fully developed stenches.”
In 1919, 20 acres of the Standard Oil refinery burned, releasing millions of gallons of oil. Much of the goop seeped underground, tainting Brooklyn’s drinking supply. This happened because residents had pumped so much freshwater from wells that the natural slope of the aquifer had been reversed: it now tilted away from the creek. The oil followed the slope into the groundwater. By the 1940s, the Brooklyn Aquifer had been pumped so low that seawater had infiltrated and polluted the aquifer further. In 1949, Brooklyn abandoned its aquifer and began to rely on city water, piped from reservoirs over a hundred miles away.
The following year, 1950, the chemical vapors spontaneously combusted underground. By then, Greenpoint was no longer green -- it was a gray, Dickensian cityscape – and Newtown Creek was one of the most polluted waterways in the country. But only a few people seemed to care.
"SISTER NEWTOWN CREEK"
In September 1978, a Coast Guard helicopter pilot on a routine patrol over Brooklyn noticed a huge black oil plume emanating from the Meeker Avenue bulkhead on Newtown Creek. He filed a report, and a containment boom -- a string of yellow plastic floats designed to restrict the oil to the shoreline -- was set. In six months, the boom collected over 100,000 gallons of degraded gasoline, fuel oil and industrial chemicals, some of which dated to 1948. New Yorkers were shocked. A Coast Guard investigation revealed that the entire length of Newtown Creek and a large swath of Greenpoint’s soil -- an area of roughly 55 acres -- was saturated by toxic industrial chemicals.
That summer, not long after the Coast Guard’s discovery, a city bus driver noticed oil oozing out of the pavement on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint. He mentioned it to a local nun, Sister Francis Gerard Kress. Sister Francis began to ask people in the neighborhood if they knew anything about the mysterious oil. She was surprised to learn that almost every resident had a story about the black mayonnaise. "Toxic fumes stained their clothes drying on the line outside," she recalled. "It gave people headaches. It made children agitated. The people hated it, but they learned to live with it. They didn’t want to cause any trouble."
Although Newtown Creek was viscous with oil, some residents swam there on scorching summer days or ate the fish or crabs they pulled from its murky waters. Sister Francis worried that the spill would endanger people’s health, so she mentioned it to the local community board, politicians, and to practically everyone she met. Few of them paid attention.
"They told me I was a nuisance," she said. "But I have Viking blood and decided to look into it anyway."
With the help of sympathetic coastguardsmen, Sister Francis dressed herself in a hazardous-materials suit, climbed over barbed-wire fences into vacant lots and skirted packs of wild dogs to inspect the creek. The more she saw of it, the more concerned she became. But when church elders learned that she was agitating for a cleanup, she recalled, they immediately warned her to desist. “The church banished me from Greenpoint!” Sister Francis declared in a loud voice when I visited her at a church-run nursing home on Long Island in 2007. She was 92 and wheelchair-bound, but recalled every detail of her mission to save Newtown Creek.
Sister Francis continued her activism in secret, but even Greenpoint residents didn’t want her to “stir things up.” Her efforts were largely met with stubborn disengagement. “I’ve never seen such a community. They still need to clean up my creek!” she thundered, insisting that I call her Sister Newtown Creek, as some of her friends still do in Greenpoint. “Think of all the young families living there that could be polluted!”
"TOO MUCH OF A COINCIDENCE"
One of those families, the Pirozzis, lived on Devoe Street, not far from the site of the 1950 explosion. The family’s youngest son, Sebastian, was energetic and spent much of his time outside; he played near the creek but not in it. Many of his neighbors raised vegetables in their backyards, where the soil and water used to tend the plants may have been contaminated, he recalled.
In the 1970s, five of Pirozzi’s neighbors contracted osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. (It is unclear what causes osteosarcoma, but it is associated with exposure to chemicals. According to the American Cancer Society, osteosarcoma “is not a common cancer,” and only 900 new cases of the disease are diagnosed annually, on average, in the United States. The New York Post reported that in 2006, in New York City, only 24 new cases were diagnosed compared to an average of 10,000 new cases of breast cancer diagnosed annually in the city at that time.) Two of Pirozzi’s osteosarcoma-stricken neighbors had their legs amputated, and one of them had an arm amputated; a teenage girl whose leg was not amputated died; a friend nearby developed bone cancer in his shoulder and died. Pirozzi’s father contracted colon cancer but survived. After the Pirozzis moved from their Devoe Street apartment, the woman who replaced them contracted bone cancer. She fought it for a decade, but the cancer killed her at age 62.
In 1977, when he was 14, Sebastian Pirozzi was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. After a year of chemotherapy, his right leg was amputated, and he began an arduous recovery. Since then he has undergone surgeries on his shoulder and knee, had part of his lung removed and had to cut short a promising career on Wall Street to tend to his health. Pirozzi no longer works and now lives on Staten Island.
“I used to think my cancer was an act of God. But now that I know more about the pollution, I’m rethinking that,” he said. “I’m coping, I guess. But I still have sleepless nights.” Although he lacks conclusive epidemiological evidence, Sebastian Pirozzi believes the oil spill and Greenpoint’s cancer cluster are linked. “Bone cancer is very rare,” he said. “To have all this rare cancer in one place? It’s just too much of a coincidence.”
The oil underground was invisible and easy to overlook, he said, and no government or oil company officials explained the possible health consequences of industrial pollution. In the 1970s Greenpoint residents “didn’t even know what an oil spill was,” Pirozzi said. “No one was savvy enough to connect the chemicals to all the sickness. You just didn’t hear about it.”
Pirozzi first learned of the oil spill in 2006, when he read a small newspaper article about it. “People were amazed -- ‘How can there be so much oil under our houses and nobody told us?’ That really pissed me off,” he said. That year, he joined a $58 billion class-action lawsuit brought against ExxonMobil, BP and other alleged polluters by the law firm Napoli Bern Ripka LLP. Most are suing for the loss of their property values, but a few, including Pirozzi, are claiming the spill affected their health.
ExxonMobil took the position that a dense layer of clay beneath Greenpoint stops the oil vapors from rising to the surface. This assumption has been contested by independent geologists, who believe the clay is porous and allows toxic vapors to filter into the air and people’s homes. ExxonMobil also argued that it was being held responsible for actions taken decades ago, in an era when regulation was limited. While that may be true, it does not explain why the spill has yet to be cleaned up.
A SECRET REVEALED
On a foggy day in October 2002, Basil Seggos, who worked as the chief investigator of the Hudson Riverkeeper -- an environmental group for which Robert Kennedy Jr. is the chief prosecuting attorney -- plowed up Newtown Creek in a wooden boat. He was there to warn people against eating fish taken from the creek. As the boat nosed through filth, Seggos noticed oil coating the creek’s surface and along its rocky edges. “It was thick. It was everywhere,” he said, as we retraced his course in the Riverkeeper’s motorboat. “It was unbelievable to me that a thing this big could be kept a secret for so long.”
Intrigued, Seggos dug through old newspaper clippings, contacted city officials, and talked to Greenpoint families. The story slowly emerged. What he learned, with the help of Freedom of Information Act requests for documents, was that Mobil Oil -- which was descended from Rockefeller’s Standard Oil and which merged with Exxon in 1999 to form ExxonMobil -- had allegedly worked out an agreement with the state. If the company assumed responsibility for cleaning up the spill, Riverkeeper charged, then state officials would not subject Mobil to fines or onerous remediation schedules: that way, both sides could avoid a public outcry and a costly legal battle.
Riverkeeper’s FOIA requests then turned up documents they maintained showed that ExxonMobil was aware that benzene had been leaking into the ground and water, and had dragged its feet on cleaning it up.
In 2004, Riverkeeper and several Brooklyn politicians filed a lawsuit against three oil companies: ExxonMobil, BP and Chevron. They charged that toxic fumes from the spill had endangered people’s health and property. Riverkeeper also alleged that ExxonMobil violated federal environmental laws. The oil companies denied the allegations. In 2007, the state’s then-attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, sued ExxonMobil to force a cleanup.
As in the case of the potentially toxic dust generated at Ground Zero on Sept. 11, 2001, no one really knows how the chemicals polluting Newtown Creek affect people’s health. There is no conclusive link between the oil and chemical spill and human sickness in Greenpoint.
An ExxonMobil spokeswoman pointed out that the company has had no active refinery operations in Greenpoint since 1963 and no terminal operations there since 1993. ExxonMobil’s lead counsel on the spill, Peter Sacripanti, said it was not clear where the pollutants originated from or who was responsible for them. “We do not believe we should be required to compensate the City of New York for someone else’s contamination,” a company statement read.
After a 1990 consent decree, the company agreed to remediate a portion of the oil beneath Brooklyn by 2007. To do so, ExxonMobil used a system of recovery wells, storage tanks and groundwater monitors. The wells use a dual-phase recovery system, in which a pump draws down the water table in a specific area while oil is sucked up. The water that is pumped out is treated and emptied into Newtown Creek; the petroleum recovered is shipped to a refinery in New Jersey, where it is reprocessed.
Environmentalists characterized the remediation efforts as “rudimentary.” By 2007, the oil companies had removed a total of nine million gallons of oil. A containment boom at the Peerless bulkhead allowed for the skimming of twenty-eight thousand gallons of oil from the surface of Newtown Creek, but it is hardly an oil-tight barrier -- as I witnessed when I have toured the creek. Thick, iridescent patches of oil float on the water and the smell of hydrocarbons is unmistakable.
In a related but separate case, the city sued oil companies for contaminating groundwater in Brooklyn and Queens. The city’s water utility, the Department of Environmental Protection, has long searched for extra sources of freshwater to supplement its supplies from upstate. The Brooklyn-Queens Aquifer could provide a valuable supply for the city in case of drought, a major water tunnel failure, or widespread fire -- except that it is contaminated.
In 2003, the city sued twenty-three oil companies over MTBE contamination of the aquifer. MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether) is an additive used to oxygenate gasoline, which helps cars burn gas cleanly. MTBEs are highly soluble in water, have leaked from storage tanks across the country, and are suspected carcinogens. The city reached settlements totaling $15 million with all of the companies but one: ExxonMobil.
The oil giant denied it was responsible for polluting the BQA, but in 2009 a federal jury found ExxonMobil liable for contaminating the aquifer and said the company knew of the potential for MTBE pollution but had failed to warn the public. The court awarded the city $104.7 million, and New York declared “total victory.” Yet even that rich payout is nowhere near enough to clean up the site or compensate Greenpoint residents.
“AN HISTORIC TURNING POINT”
Today Newtown Creek remains mostly lifeless. Experts have deemed it “severely stressed” and say that it is no longer a functioning ecosystem. Seagulls, cormorants and the occasional heron are seen along its banks, but the water and mud they wade in is noxious. When a dolphin was spotted swimming upstream in the spring of 2010, biologists worried about its health and were relieved when it turned and swam downstream into the relatively clean water of New York Harbor.
Newtown Creek is part of the New York–New Jersey Harbor Estuary, which the EPA lists as an “estuary of national significance.” When EPA scientists tested the creek bed in 2009, they found sediments along its entire length were impregnated with toxic contaminants.
By 2010, ExxonMobil, BP and Chevron had removed 11 million gallons of oil from the contaminated zone. Depending on which experts you believe, another 20 million gallons of oily pollutants could remain beneath Greenpoint; it is even possible that the vapors trapped underground could explode again. ExxonMobil estimates it will take 20 years to pump the remaining oil out of the ground and water there. But even then, the soil will remain saturated with other toxic compounds, such as xylene, toluene and methane.
In October, the creek was designated a Superfund site, meaning the federal government will mandate a rigorous cleanup. While the Superfund law allows for the use of federal funds for remediation -- which the EPA estimates will take at least 15 years and cost over $400 million -- most of the cost will be borne by the polluters. A Superfund designation requires years of environmental study of a site before work can begin. Once underway, the cleanup might consist of a light dredging of contaminated soil, which would be replaced with clean fill, or it might require a much deeper cleaning to thoroughly scour out the contaminants. Either way, the cleanup will only remove toxins from the shoreline and sediments of Newtown Creek. It does not address other water quality issues, such as stormwater runoff and raw sewage spewing into local waters, which aren’t eligible.
The only way to completely remediate the black mayonnaise is to excavate the entire polluted zone and replace it with clean fill. This would be massively expensive and would require the government to condemn a large swath of Greenpoint, which will never be practical.
More likely, the polluted zone will be partly cleaned, and the remaining pollutants will be capped and left alone. This solution is far from perfect -- it will allow toxins to continue to leak into the water and the soil -- but it is a pragmatic compromise similar to those instituted in New York Harbor and the Hudson River. Wildlife has returned to those waterways, which remain polluted by PCBs and mercury, making their fish and ducks unsafe to eat.
As the seriousness of Brooklyn’s environmental pollution became clear, Greenpoint residents, local environmental groups, Riverkeeper, the borough of Brooklyn and Cuomo increased pressure on ExxonMobil to accelerate its cleanup efforts. Finally, in late 2010, the company agreed to settle with Cuomo (by then the state’s governor-elect); speed the cleaning of the water, soil and air in Greenpoint; and pay $25 million in penalties, damages, environmental restoration fees and future costs. It was the largest single payment of its kind in state history.
ExxonMobil officials said they were “pleased” that the settlement resolved numerous legal actions and vowed the company would “remain in Greenpoint until the remediation effort is done -- and done right.” Paul Gallay, the Hudson Riverkeeper’s executive director, hailed the settlement as “an historic turning point,” which it was. Yet it did not resolve the two class-action suits, in which residents such as Sebastian Pirozzi are seeking billions of dollars’ worth of restitution for harm to their property values and for potential health costs related to the oil spill.
“After all we’ve been through, I hope we can resolve the lawsuit soon,” said Pirozzi. “It’s taken so long. But whatever happens, it’s not going to change my cancer. I still have some bitterness about that.”