New York State moved to sue Exxon Mobil and four other companies on Thursday to force them to clean up a half-century-old spill of millions of gallons of oil lying under the Greenpoint neighborhood in Brooklyn and to repair environmental damage inflicted on nearby Newtown Creek.
The spill, originally several times the size of the Exxon Valdez oil leak, resulted from an accident in the 1950s and lay undiscovered until 1978. In notices of intent to sue that were sent to the five companies, Andrew M. Cuomo, the state attorney general, said that so much oil had leaked into the creek that some samples of its sediment, when dried and weighed, were nearly one-tenth oil.
The notices also disclosed that an internal study by one of the companies found nearly 100 different pollutants in the creek water or sediment, including benzene, arsenic and lead.
The other companies receiving the notices were BP, Chevron, KeySpan and Phelps Dodge.
The state’s action is a sharp turning point in its handling of the spill, which in recent years has occasioned lawsuits by Greenpoint residents, local elected officials and environmental groups. A 1990 agreement between Exxon Mobil and state environmental officials had required the company to recover the spilled oil, but it specified no deadline and required no remediation of either the creek or the polluted soil under Greenpoint.
About eight million gallons of oil and petroleum byproducts are believed to remain underground, and past soil tests have revealed that the spill releases toxic vapors into the neighborhood above. Mr. Cuomo’s action will seek a far faster pace for recovering the oil, extensive scientific testing to determine damage to the soil and groundwater, and millions of dollars in fines. Cleanup costs could increase the companies’ expense by tens of millions of dollars, Mr. Cuomo’s aides said.
“This is one of the worst environmental disasters in the nation, larger than the Exxon Valdez and slower in the cleanup,” Mr. Cuomo said in a statement. “Exxon Mobil must and will be held accountable. The toxic footprint of Exxon Mobil is found all over this area. It is Exxon Mobil’s oil that remains under the homes and businesses. And it is Exxon Mobil that has dragged its feet and done as little as possible to address the dangers that it created.”
According to the notices, Exxon Mobil’s current mechanisms for recovering the spilled oil have, as a side effect, discharged yet more pollutants into the creek, a process that the company has been aware of for years, the notices say. A spokesman for Mr. Cuomo said on Thursday that Exxon Mobil had also been reselling some of the recovered oil, even as it allowed the creek to become more polluted.
Barry Wood, a spokesman for Exxon Mobil, said the company had not received the notices. In a statement, he said the company had already helped recover more than 9.3 million gallons of the petroleum products.
“While the cost of remediation at the site is confidential, Exxon Mobil is committed to remediation of the site, and we have been aggressive in our efforts and have made significant progress,” Mr. Wood said.
He added that the company remained committed to its 1990 agreement with the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
“We take our environmental responsibilities very seriously and have committed substantial resources toward cleaning up the site,” he said. “Complex remediation projects such as this, where the product to be recovered is under ground and not easily accessible, takes time to complete.”
Phelps Dodge operated a copper smelting plant on the creek’s north bank, in Queens, where studies have found heavy metals and other pollutants. Companies later acquired by KeySpan owned gas processing facilities along the waterway that contaminated the creek’s sediments with some of the same pollutants and other toxic chemicals, according to the notices.
Companies later acquired by Chevron and BP operated storage or refinery facilities along the creek that leaked oil into the ground, according to the notices.
Together, the notices significantly widen the scope of state legal action concerning the creek, a dirty, 3.5-mile-long estuary that marks Brooklyn’s northern border and flows into the East River. Local politicians said yesterday that they believed Mr. Cuomo’s actions would pave the way for a long-overdue cleanup of the creek and its transformation into a recreational waterway.
“The Brooklyn-Queens waterfront has the potential to be New York’s Gold Coast, with sparkling towers, schools, parks and libraries,” said Eric Gioia, a City Council member whose Queens district abuts the creek. “Cleaning Newtown Creek is critical to that vision.”
Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who took over investigation of the spill from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation last year when he was attorney general, praised Mr. Cuomo’s decision.
“This is an important day for the people of Greenpoint, Brooklyn,” Mr. Spitzer said. “It is imperative that Exxon Mobil and the other companies responsible for this pollution be held fully accountable.”
When first discovered, the spill was estimated at 17 million gallons of oil and oil products spread over 100 acres. Currently, the spill covers about 55 acres.
For years, Greenpoint residents have watched as environmentalists battled state officials and the companies responsible for the oil. In 2004, Riverkeeper, an environmental group, decided to file its own lawsuit against Exxon Mobil. The following summer, soil tests performed by the group showed toxic fumes coming from the ground over the spill. That caused a second lawsuit by about two dozen Greenpoint residents.
Both suits are active, but local officials and environmental groups said Mr. Cuomo’s move would put significant new pressure on Exxon Mobil.
“They have managed to manipulate and work with previous administrations and enlist their help in avoiding a serious remediation,” said Alex Matthiessen, the president of Riverkeeper. “Attorney General Cuomo’s notice letter brings that to a screeching halt.”
Federal laws require Mr. Cuomo to give the companies advance notice of his intent to sue them, and to allow the companies to avoid the suits by acting quickly.
BP, Chevron, KeySpan and Phelps Dodge have been cooperating with state officials to clean up their own properties, according to Robert E. Hernan, an assistant attorney general who heads Mr. Cuomo’s environmental enforcement unit.
But Exxon Mobil may prove more resistant. According to the notices, the attorney general’s office recently approached the company and asked it to take responsibility for stopping continuing leaks at one of two sites it owns. The company declined, the documents state, and Mr. Hernan predicted that it would fight the new action in court.
“Our expectations are not high,” he said.
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