One influential group of people did start to take notice of Greenpoint. Riverkeeper is a nonprofit that looks after water quality on the Hudson River and its tributaries. They started patrolling Newtown Creek in 2002, and found oil leaking into the creek from a bulkhead on the Exxon Mobil property near the BQE. They filed notice of intent to sue the company under the Clean Water Act. A few years later NY State joined in with a parallel lawsuit.
Joshua Veleum, a lawyer with Riverkeeper, told me they went through three years of negotiations with Exxon Mobil, and getting Greenpoint residents to join in the case. This last November they finally reached a settlement, settling the State’s case as a side agreement. The settlement forced Exxon Mobil to give $19 million to fund environmental projects in Greenpoint, and spend millions more thoroughly cleaning up the oil contaminating Greenpoint groundwater. Riverkeeper retained the right to monitor the clean up. They can take the company back to court if the reparations aren’t up to Riverkeeper’s standards.
Those 2002 patrols also got Riverkeeper pushing for EPA Superfund status for Newtown Creek. They started writing state politicians, including then NY senator Hillary Clinton, asking them to petition the EPA. The EPA first had to come out and give Newtown Creek a hazard ranking score, to see if it was eligible for the Superfund rank. It was, and the EPA added Newtown Creek to its list of Superfund sites.
Why’d it take so long for forceful action, like the Exxon Mobil settlement and the Superfund designation, to come to Greenpoint? Riverkeeper’s Veleum points out that Greenpoint’s always been a really industrial area, where people might have considered pollution as coming with the territory. Also, the oil leak was slow and underground, out of view from the everyday person. Veleum also suggests that those at the state level may have recognized what a big task the clean up would be, and just didn’t want to have to do what it would take to tackle it. I keep hearing about the history of corruption in Albany, and I’m curious to see how that might relate to representatives’ hesitation to confront oil companies in Greenpoint. Even to this day the state downplays the health risks in this neighborhood, though Riverkeeper and residents remain concerned.
Speaking of people worried about health in Greenpoint, how does Laura Hofmann feel about last fall’s two victories? I thought she might still be skeptical, but she’s unequivocally elated. “It’s wonderful,” she told me. And she’s proud of how the people of Greenpoint banded together to fight for change. “This neighborhood turned out to be a kick-ass neighborhood,” she says frankly. “Within a decade, 100% more has gone through than was done in all the decades before.”
Considering I’d like to produce this story over the next year, I’m trying to figure out what kind of progress I’ll get to cover. In regards to the Superfund site, a representative from the EPA told me they first have to put together a Remedial Investigation Report, which focuses on “the nature and extent of the contamination”. The EPA rep was hesitant to give me a timeline, but other sources say the report alone will likely take a full year to complete. Then they have to do a feasibility study to look at the options for clean up. Then they have to debate the merits of those options. You get it, it’s going to be a while before the EPA gets anything visible done. As far as seeing results from the Exxon Mobil settlement, I unfortunately have to leave you hanging. I’m still waiting for responses from Riverkeeper and the state Department of Environmental Conservation regarding timeline for putting the settlement money into action.