WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
Current New York Attorney General and Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo came to the blustery banks of the Newtown Creek Wednesday to announce a landmark settlement that will force Exxon Mobil to clean-up a multimillion gallon, underground oil spill that has vexed Greenpoint residents for decades.
Under the terms of the deal entered in Federal Court, Exxon Mobil will clean-up the sub-surface spill and provide $20 million of funding to address local environmental concerns.
Neigborhood activists like Rick Mazur have been fighting this cause for decades.
"It was like Groundhog Day. Every meeting we went to with the oil companies, they would say 'Oh, we are doing the studies. We want to see how much oil spill there is. it is uncertain,'" Mazur said. "And I said 'Wait a minute, that's the same thing I heard twenty years ago.'"
For years, residents had to deal with the smell of oil, resulting from the spill of between 17 million to 30 million gallons of oil underground. The spill was the legacy of a neighborhood that was the site of as many as 50 oil refining and distribution plants dating back to before the Civil War.
In addition to a complete site remediation, Exxon Mobil will also pay more than $25 million in penalties, most of which will go to fund local community environmental programs.
Cuomo said the clean-up would cost the oil giant "multiples" of the $25 million penalties they are paying.
Earlier this year, the Federal EPA designated Newtown Creek as a Superfund site. The first hint of the huge subsurface spill came back in 1978 when a routine Coast Guard helicopter patrol spotted a plume from an underground morass migrating into the Newtown Creek. But the run-off from the spill is not Newtown Creek's only environmental issue and the EPA action is focused on remediating all sources of the creek's degradation.
Cuomo said the Exxon Mobil deal targeted remediation of all of the land impacted by the underground spill.
"So it's removing the oil, removing the contaminated soil that is on the land, remediating the vapors, because there's an odor coming from the oil on the land," said Cuomo.
An Exxon Mobil spokeswoman said the company is pleased to have reached an agreement. She said the company will have a plan to involve the community within 90 days.
Cuomo said the cleanup will be essentially invisible to residents. "The basic way they remove the oil is literally by drilling oil wells, because these are millions of gallons that are under the surface" said Cuomo. "They drill oil wells, and they pump out the oil."
Resident Irene Klementowicz has worked for a clean-up for 30 years.
"This was going on for so many years, and thank God that we're still here working on it, and we've finally got through to some people that understand the seriousness in this community," said Klementowicz.
Klementowicz said she would like to see some of the local settlement money go to environmental education for the community's school children.