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Riverkeeper Instrumental in Settling Landmark Oil Spill Suit in Brooklyn

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CONTACTS: Tina Posterli, Riverkeeper, 914-478-4501 x 239
Daniel Estrin, Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic, 917-747-4235

Eight-year long Riverkeeper campaign leads to comprehensive cleanup and community compensation

Ossining, NY – November 17, 2010 – Riverkeeper joined New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and residents of Brooklyn’s Greenpoint community to announce a landmark settlement of federal litigation against ExxonMobil for oil contamination of a large section of Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Over the last century, between 17 and 30 million gallons of oil were spilled and leaked from ExxonMobil’s historic refinery and storage facilities into the soil and groundwater in Greenpoint. These petroleum discharges formed an over 50 acre underground petroleum plume that underlies local businesses and a residential section of Greenpoint. The contamination has also been leaching into Newtown Creek for decades.

The agreement – or “Consent Decree” – being announced today was catalyzed by an eight-year Riverkeeper enforcement campaign and will result in a comprehensive cleanup and major community benefits after years of inaction and neglect by prior administrations. The settlement requires Exxon to investigate and clean up the contaminated groundwater and soil affected by the spill and to address releases of soil vapors into the air and vapor intrusion from the contamination into Greenpoint’s homes and businesses. ExxonMobil will establish a $19.5 million “Environmental Benefit Project” fund which will be used to finance community actions to reduce pollution, conduct environmental restoration and create open space in Greenpoint. ExxonMobil is also required to pay natural resource damages to the State of New York, to reimburse the State for its investigation and oversight costs, and to reimburse Riverkeeper for its legal fees and litigation expenses.

“In partnership with Attorney General Cuomo and Greenpoint residents, we helped to develop an agreement that marks a monumental turning point for this community,” stated Paul Gallay, Executive Director and Hudson Riverkeeper. “Attorney General Cuomo’s leadership has been essential in compelling Exxon to acknowledge its legal responsibility to clean up its mess. With this victory in hand, we can finally begin the process of healing the community and the local environment. The Exxon settlement and the recent Superfund listing of Newtown Creek will make it possible for Riverkeeper and local residents to realize our vision of a Greenpoint community that is free of historic pollution, supports local industry and offers its residents open space and public access to a revitalized Newtown Creek.”

Riverkeeper has been the driving force in bringing this litigation forward, raising public awareness about the oil spill and taking action to address this historic contamination. Riverkeeper discovered the oil spill during a boat patrol of Newtown Creek in 2002, finding oil sheens, floating garbage and abandoned cars littering the Creek. After investigating the source of the oil and the industrial history of the Creek, Riverkeeper filed a federal lawsuit against ExxonMobil in 2004 to hold it responsible for its role in the contamination. Riverkeeper was joined by Greenpoint residents Laura and Mike Hofmann, Teresa Toro, Rolf Carle, Bill Schuck and Deborah Masters as co-plaintiffs in its lawsuit. New York Attorney General Cuomo subsequently filed a federal lawsuit alleging similar claims, as well as other claims over which the State has unique enforcement authority. The lawsuits were consolidated for case management purposes by the federal court in Brooklyn, and the parties have been actively engaged in efforts to settle the cases for almost three years.

Riverkeeper has been represented since the lawsuit’s inception by dedicated law students, supervised by law professors, at Pace Law School’s Environmental Litigation Clinic in White Plains. “We are thrilled for Greenpoint, and for everyone who will ultimately use and enjoy Newtown Creek, that our litigation has concluded, and that the cleanup of the contamination will now move forward in earnest,” said Professor Daniel Estrin, one of the Supervising Attorneys at the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic. “After decades of inaction by prior administrations to hold Exxon legally accountable, and to responsibly address one of the worst petroleum-contaminated sites in the history of this country, we now have a binding settlement in which Exxon acknowledges its legal responsibility to remediate all of the contaminated media on, and emanating from, the site. We applaud Attorney General Cuomo and the DEC for ultimately filing their own lawsuit, which helped to finally bring this unfortunate chapter for Greenpoint and Newtown Creek to conclusion.”

“Now that our lawsuit has been resolved, the next phase of restoring the community and the Creek begins” said Phillip Musegaas, Hudson River Program Director at Riverkeeper. “Riverkeeper is fully committed to supporting the community throughout this process; we will continue to monitor the cleanup to make sure that it goes according to plan and on schedule.”

“The Hudson Riverkeeper has worked tirelessly for eight years representing Newtown Creek and its neighborhoods and businesses, and as a result has been able to secure a settlement that is a giant step forward and will provide significant benefits for a community that’s been environmentally overburdened for a very long time,” said Kathleen Schmid of the Newtown Creek Alliance. “This agreement promises funding for community supported environmental projects, a thorough remediation of the oil spill and substantive mechanisms for enforcement. The Newtown Creek Alliance is optimistic that this settlement will mark the beginning of a speedy and inclusive environmental cleanup of the Newtown Creek oil spill.”

The Consent Decree, a formal legal agreement that has been submitted to a Brooklyn federal judge for approval, contains the following key provisions:

  • ExxonMobil is required to identify and comprehensively clean up petroleum contamination at its Greenpoint facility and in the surrounding community. This requirement includes “free product” (oil floating on top of the water table), contaminated groundwater, soil and soil vapors.
  • The investigation and cleanup will be overseen by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and the New York State Attorney General’s office.
  • The Decree contains enforceable schedules and performance benchmarks by which state officials, Riverkeeper and the public can measure Exxon’s progress in the cleanup. Failure to meet important milestones and deadlines will result in Exxon having to pay significant stipulated penalties to the State.
  • Riverkeeper’s role in the settlement requires Exxon to provide Riverkeeper with copies of all of Exxon’s draft and final remedial proposals and other submissions to the DEC. Riverkeeper will also have the right to comment upon Exxon’s submissions before preliminary determinations are made by DEC’s environmental remediation staff. If Riverkeeper has concerns about Exxon’s compliance with the Decree or the State’s oversight of the cleanup, it will have the right to raise such concerns with the federal court. Riverkeeper will also meet at least annually with DEC to review the progress of the cleanup.
  • ExxonMobil will establish a $19.5 million Environmental Benefit Projects fund to pay for projects that will benefit the Greenpoint, Brooklyn community directly. Under the Decree, a community consultant will gather local public input on the types of projects to be funded, with a focus on reducing air and water pollution, “greening” the community with parks and better public access to Newtown Creek, and environmental restoration and education.

Since its first boat patrol into Newtown Creek over eight years ago, Riverkeeper has established itself as the leading pollution enforcer on Newtown Creek, exemplified by its citizen suits against oil companies, cement manufacturers and other polluters. Riverkeeper also helped found the Newtown Creek Alliance, a coalition of elected officials, local residents, business owners and other non-profit organizations working to improve the Creek and adjoining neighborhoods.

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