The news that Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has sued ExxonMobil for having “spilled, leaked or otherwise discarded at least 17 million gallons of various petroleum products … and other pollutants” into Greenpoint and Newtown Creek, induced muted praise from weary residents who’ve been fighting the energy giant for more than 25 years.
“I guess it’s a step in the right direction, but I don’t know if it’s enough,” said Carol O’Neill, who has lived on Morgan Avenue between Nassau and Driggs avenues for 22 years, and has lived atop the oil plume her whole life.
“I don’t understand why it’s something that hadn’t been addressed a long time ago.”
The oil spill was first discovered in 1978 and is six million gallons larger than the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989.
In 1990, the state ordered Exxon to clean up the Greenpoint spill, but set few benchmarks and imposed no fines. Environmentalists claim little progress has been made, and many have taken the legal battle into their own hands.
“Since the case was first discovered in the 1970s, the state had been shielding Exxon,” said Basil Seggos, the chief investigator for Riverkeeper, an environmental non-profit that sued ExxonMobil in 2004.
Meanwhile, O’Neill joined 469 other Greenpoint residents in a separate lawsuit against ExxonMobil and other companies at the end of 2005. Bob McErlean, one of her co-plaintiffs, welcomed the attorney general to the fight.
“The more the merrier,” said McErlean, who is a third-generation homeowner on Hausman Street between Meeker and Nassau avenues.
According to Cuomo, over the course of half a century, ExxonMobil’s refinery and storage facilities, and those of other energy companies, leaked 17 million gallons of oil into the industrial waterfront. The oil remains beneath 55 acres of Greenpoint and the Newtown Creek, and has contaminated both the waterway and the East River.
Residents have grown fearful that the spill’s benzene vapors and other toxins will threaten their health.
ExxonMobil said it can’t comment on the suit until it receives the papers, but defended its clean-up efforts.
“ExxonMobil and other companies have recovered more than 9.3 million gallons of petroleum products to date,” said Barry Wood, an ExxonMobil spokesman. “ExxonMobil is committed to remediation of the site, and we have been aggressive in our efforts and have made significant progress.”
Cuomo also announced plans to sue Chevron and BP, which operated oil storage facilities along the creek; Phelps Dodge, which operated a copper-smelting plant and is credited with releasing lead and mercury into the area; and KeySpan, whose predecessors operated gas plant facilities along the creek and is thought to have contaminated creek sediment with PCBs, among other nasty chemicals.