A Slippery Past

Five minutes past noon on October 5, 1950, Greenpoint shook with the blast of a huge underground explosion. The blast ripped out a 10-foot section of pavement, shot 25 manhole covers into the air, and shattered the windowpanes on more than 500 buildings.(Fn 1) New York City officials investigating the explosion found that gasoline had seeped into the sewer and ignited.(Fn 2) The leaks leading to the spills were left unaddressed, and the millions of gallons continued to migrate.

Twenty eight years later, the spill was “rediscovered” when the Coast Guard spotted an oil slick on Newtown Creek during a routine patrol. On September 29, 1978, the pilot found black fuel oil billowing out of a bulkhead at Meeker Avenue next to the Peerless Importers site. The Coast Guard immediately set up a recovery boom on the Creek to contain oil leaking onto the waterway, collecting 200,000 gallons of product over the next six months, and commenced an 11 month investigation into the source. In 1979, US Coast Guard issued a report characterizing the spill.(Fn 3)

The spill was colossal. The 1979 report by the Coast Guard found that 17 million gallons had spilled and spread over 55 acres. For administrative purposes, the Coast Guard subdivided the spill into three areas: 52 acres “off-site,” 2 acres at the “Amoco site,” 1 acre at the “Mobil on-site”. The product lay mostly on top of the water table, in a layer ranging in thickness from a few inches to almost 20 feet at its northernmost under Kingsland Avenue. The product contained a mixture of degraded gasoline, fuel oil, and naphtha, dated back to 1948, right before the massive underground explosion. The Coast Guard attributed responsibility for the spill primarily to the Newtown Creek refinery of Mobil’s predecessor, the Standard Oil Company of New York (SOCONY). Only 50-70% of this tremendous spill was thought to be recoverable.

After completing the report, the Coast Guard claimed its authority in the matter had expired, and handed the situation over to the city and state. Two years of inaction ensued. Then, in 1981, Mobil, Amoco, the Coast Guard, and state and city agencies entered into a “memorandum of understanding” establishing the Meeker Avenue Task Force, which operated a single recovery well on Meeker Avenue. The group rarely, if ever, met.(Fn 4) Meanwhile, oil continued to plume into the Creek unabated.

Greenpoint residents waited nearly a decade for further action. In 1990, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Mobil finally executed consent orders. The orders required only the most basic remediation. They failed to define any benchmark for cleanup, thus allowing Mobil to abandon the spill at its own discretion. The orders also made no provisions for cleaning the contaminated soils and sands beneath the surface. Mobil was not required to pay a single penny in penalties for the historic spill or compensation to the community for its devastated natural resources.

It would be five years before cleanup began on the majority of the spill area.(Fn 5)

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