Gioia joins lawsuit against Newtown Creek polluters

By James DeWeese

The spill has turned the site into what a local environmental group has called the dirtiest water body in North America.

Councilmen Eric Gioia (D-Sunnyside) and David Yassky (D-Brooklyn) announced in the Red Room of City Hall Monday that they had joined two citizen lawsuits to be brought by local environmental conservation group Riverkeeper Inc. and nearly a dozen Queens and Brooklyn residents, a spokesman for Yassky said.

“For too long, irresponsible polluters and insufficient state enforcement have allowed an oil spill that dwarfs the Exxon Valdez to seep unchecked into our waterways,” Gioia said. “From this lawsuit, the oil companies should take one message loud and clear: New York will no longer tolerate pollution that degrades our environment and threatens our health.”

The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, dumped 11 million gallons of petroleum, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Riverkeeper, a New York-area environmental watchdog group, said it will file suit against ExxonMobil Corp., Mobil Corp., BP Amoco Corp., BP Corp. North America Inc., Roux Associates Inc. and Peerless Importers Inc./The 181 Lawrence Avenue Realty Co.

In Riverkeeper's Jan. 20 notice of intent to sue under the Clean Water and Resource Conservation and Recovery acts, the group said petroleum products continue to seep from the underground oil plume through porous steel bulkheads on Peerless' creek front property, over containment booms and into Newtown Creek, which divides Brooklyn and Queens.

Between Oct. 25, 2002 and Nov. 25, 2003, Riverkeeper said it conducted 14 investigative patrols along Newtown Creek, identifying brown globs of petroleum and rainbow-colored sheens that cover the creek's surface both inside and outside containment booms.

“We were just startled by the level of pollution and neglect,” said Riverkeeper investigator Basil Seggos. “It was like stepping back in time – it still is.”

Seggos said Riverkeeper investigators have observed people fishing for meals at the mouth of the contaminated waterway near Manhattan Avenue. There are no signs warning about contamination, he said.

The Clean Water Act prohibits the dumping of pollutants into a navigable waterway without a permit and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act bans the disposal of waste into land or water where it could spread into the air or groundwater. The environmental infractions could carry penalties of up to $35,000 for each day the companies were in violation of the acts, Seggos said.

The petroleum allegedly leaked for more than 50 years from oil company terminals and refineries in Greenpoint and migrated south to sit under more than 100 homes over a 55-acre area along Newtown Creek between Amoco's terminal in the north and the Kosciusko Bridge in the south.

A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter patrol first spotted oil seeping into the creek in 1978. But a 1950s sewer explosion in the area has also been linked to oil vapor from seepage, Seggos said. In 1990, the state Department of Environmental Conservation entered into a consent decree with ExxonMobil. The agreement did not establish a deadline for clean-up.

Maureen Wren, a spokeswoman for the DEC, said clean-up efforts will continue until the DEC is satisfied and that the agency is actively monitoring ongoing oil removal projects in the Greenpoint area. She said 24,000 gallons of petroleum products are being removed each month. The DEC is also working with ExxonMobil to update the company's product recovery system, Wren said.

In a telephone interview, Gioia said he was concerned that the DEC could arrive at another consent decree, shielding the oil companies from the current lawsuit. “Exxon's evaded its responsibilities for half a century,” Gioia said.

Wren, the Department of Environmental Conservation spokeswoman, said only that the DEC would continue to enforce existing environmental laws and reach new agreements to protect the health of New Yorkers.

ExxonMobil has been slowly pumping out some of the oil over about a decade, removing about 3 million gallons of the estimated 17-million-gallon spill, Seggos said. The DEC, however, reported that 8 million gallons of petroleum have been removed from the Greenpoint area.

A BP Amoco spokesperson declined to comment, saying that the company did not discuss litigation. ExxonMobil media representatives did not return phone calls by press time.

The cleanup could take 15 years or more, said Tony Nunziato, chairman of Community Board 5's environmental committee.

Nunziato said that 125 years ago the area was rich in oyster beds. “There was life there,” he said. Now the creek is largely devoid of wildlife.

Efforts to breathe life back into the creek, whose waters were once plied by tall-masted ships, are already in the works, he said. An air-pumping station has been built at Manhattan Avenue and pipes have been laid in the creek bed to aerate the water. And future projects could include esplanades and even a marina, Nunziato said.

The lawsuits cannot proceed until the end of a legally mandated notification period, which will expire in late March for suits under the Clean Water Act and in mid-April under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Riverkeeper said in the notice that it would be willing to discuss remediation with the companies to avoid the courtroom.

ExxonMobil and BP Amoco have contacted Riverkeeper to schedule a meeting to discuss the charges sometime in April, Seggos said. ChevronTexaco has not, he said.

Seggos declined to say what terms the complainants would be willing to accept in order to call off the suit. “I'd rather not set the bar at any particular level.”

Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by calling 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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