The biggest oil spill Exxon Mobil has to answer for is not the cargo that gushed from the Exxon Valdez tanker into Alaska's Prince William Sound. It is the fuel that soaked into the ground beneath a working class section of Brooklyn, New York.
The pressure is rising on Exxon Mobil to expand its cleanup of oil that seeped into the soil over many decades in the Greenpoint neighborhood. The office of the New York State attorney general is threatening legal action, and two suits in the past year seek billions of dollars for damage to property values and health risks.
In the late 1800s, the area housed more than 50 refineries, and the contamination may have begun then, Exxon Mobil said. By 1892, most of the facilities were owned by Standard Oil, an Exxon Mobil predecessor.
Leaking gasoline caused a spectacular sewer explosion in 1950 that sent manhole covers flying. The site was identified as an environmental hazard in 1978 when a Coast Guard patrol spotted an oily plume in Newtown Creek.
"There are people who live above this that still don't know about it," said Basil Seggos, chief investigator for Riverkeeper, an environmental group that sued in 2004 to try to force Exxon Mobil to clean up the creek. Others in Greenpoint have become spill experts, according to Seggos, and they say the fumes that rise from basements and sewers are especially bad when the barometer drops before a storm. "The locals tell you they know when it's going to rain because they can smell the oil."
The lawsuits by environmentalists and residents claim that Exxon Mobil, BP and other companies were negligent for failing to prevent the spill or clean it up once it was known. One case, a proposed class action, seeks $58 billion. Another is backed by the Los Angeles law firm that helped win the water contamination suit made famous in the 2000 movie "Erin Brockovich."
Exxon Mobil, the world's largest oil company, has acted responsibly and is cleaning up the site, a company spokeswoman, Premlata Nair, said. "Exxon Mobil does not believe any form of legal action is warranted."
"The main concern to humans would be the benzene and methane and other dangerous components of the oil products," said Justin Bloom, a New York lawyer who works with Girardi & Keese, a firm in the Brockovich case.
Benzene is a known carcinogen, while methane is a component of natural gas and poses a risk of explosion.
Brockovich herself has spoken at community meetings in Greenpoint about the oil spill and the lawsuit.
Bloom said no one has yet completed a study of possible health effects from the spill. "The next significant step to be done is a significant sampling of indoor air," he said.
Girardi & Keese is suing Exxon Mobil, BP and other companies in state court on behalf of more than 400 Greenpoint residents. The plaintiffs are asking for a jury trial and unspecified damages.
State agencies in New York, including the Department of Environmental Conservation, are studying the neighborhood to determine if harmful fumes from the spill are affecting residents. The study covers 250 homes, businesses and apartments, said Maureen Wren, a department spokeswoman.
The state estimates the Brooklyn spill at 17 million gallons, or 64 million liters, compared with the 11 million gallons the Exxon Valdez spilled after hitting Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound in 1989.
The lawyers suing Exxon Mobil say the Brooklyn spill may be 30 million gallons. Riverkeeper, in its own suit against Exxon Mobil, seeks money to map the extent of the spill, in addition to money for cleaning up Newtown Creek, where yellow plastic booms to contain spilled oil are a permanent fixture.
Awareness of the spill is growing among those who live in the rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood, partly because of the new lawsuits.
"To us, it's so scary because we have no facts," said Carol O'Neill, a lifelong Greenpoint resident. O'Neill has owned her home on Morgan Street for 22 years and says Exxon Mobil knew about the spill and did nothing. "Why aren't they moving on it if it can be such a health hazard to us?"
Exxon Mobil began its cleanup and monitoring efforts after signing a consent decree with New York State in 1990 that established a legally binding plan for the cleanup.
"Our primary focus in Brooklyn has been to implement a remediation program that protects public health and the environment," Nair, the spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail message. "This will continue to be our focus, and we are committed to fully meet our responsibilities at the site."
More than 9.3 million gallons of petroleum products have been recovered from Greenpoint, and the work continues, Nair said. She declined to discuss estimates of the size of the spill or how much money Exxon Mobil is spending on the cleanup.
The fishermen, landowners and others who sued over the Exxon Valdez spill, the worst oil tanker accident in U.S. history, were awarded $287 million for economic losses.
Exxon Mobil was also required to pay punitive damages of $5 billion, an amount that has been altered by the courts several times, including last month, when a U.S. appeals court cut them to $2.5 billion.
BP signed a consent decree in March that spelled out how it would clean up the spill under its Greenpoint property, said a spokeswoman, Sarah Howell. She declined to comment on the lawsuits, citing company policy against discussing litigation.
"We obviously take our environmental responsibilities seriously," she said.
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