Published November 17, 2014
Exxon Mobil Corp. has agreed to pay $25 million to resolve complaints over its handling of a huge underground oil spill in New York City.
The settlement with Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and a related agreement with the environmental group Riverkeeper will settle years of litigation over the toxic legacy of the refineries that once lined the Brooklyn waterfront.
It will also hasten a decades-long cleanup of the neighborhood that now sits above the oil plume, Cuomo vowed Wednesday.
For the first time, the company will be held to deadlines for cleaning up portions of the spill, said Cuomo, New York's governor-elect. Exxon Mobil will also be required to clean contaminated soil and ensure that fumes from the spill are not entering people's homes.
"They have to do more, better, faster," Cuomo said.
An estimated 17 million gallons of petroleum once lay beneath land that was a major production center for Standard Oil, and later was the home of refineries and fuel distribution terminals for several energy companies.
These days, the neighborhood, in the borough's Greenpoint section, is a mix of light industry and residential homes. The oil sits on top of the water table dozens of feet underground. Exxon believes it was spilled bit by bit over a century in which regulation of refineries was lighter than it is now, and spills and leaks were common.
Exxon first recognized in 1978 that the land it owned in Greenpoint was contaminated and since 1990 it has been extracting oil from the ground using a network of wells. To date, more than 11 million gallons have been pumped out, but the pace of the cleanup has frustrated neighborhood residents.
Today, oil still seeps into Newtown Creek, which separates Brooklyn from Queens. Some people living above the plume had complained about an oily smell in their basements after periods of heavy rain.
Riverkeeper sued the company in 2004. Cuomo followed with his own federal lawsuit shortly after taking office in 2007.
"This was a nightmare that they lived with for many, many years," Cuomo said
Exxon, and two other oil companies involved in the site, BP and Chevron Corp., have always defended their cleanup operations, saying they were using the best methods available.
In a statement, the company said Wednesday that it remained committed to the remediation project.
"The health, safety and welfare of those living and working in the Greenpoint community continue to be our top priority," it said.
Riverkeeper Executive Director Paul Gallay said he was certain the settlement, which contains penalties for failing to meet cleanup deadlines, would force Exxon to get serious about getting oil out of the ground faster.
"The technology exists to do this in fewer years than it has taken," he said.
Other legal battles still lay ahead for the company. A group of Greenpoint residents who live above the oil plume have another lawsuit still pending.
Robert McErlean, 62, said the oil company's representatives are scheduled to come out to his house again on Dec. 8 to check his basement for evidence of infiltration by vapors from the spill.
Asked whether he thought Wednesday's settlement would lead to a quicker cleanup, he said he's heard similar promises before.
"Do you believe 'em? Maybe I'm skeptical about everything that goes on with this world," he said. "When it is all done and over with, I'll probably be dead in the grave."
The U.S. government also recently declared Newtown Creek to be a federal Superfund site, which will lead to wrangling over who is most responsible for polluting the industrialized waterway.
Exxon has always denied responsibility for the globs of petroleum that bob on the creek's surface, claiming that spilled fuel must have come from somewhere else.