The Pulaski Bridge is one of the more surreal spots in the city. On one side of the rattling drawbridge—which feels like it could topple into Newtown Creek every time a bus rolls by—is the bright Midtown skyline; on the other, a limitless industrial landscape dotted by natural gas terminals, oil refineries and warehouses. Underneath sits the biggest oil spill in American history, at least until a month ago: 200 years worth of industrial byproduct seeping into Newtown Creek and the adjacent groundwater. As a result, over 1,500 homes in Greenpoint's formerly industrial Newtown Creek waterfront sit above a sprawling toxic plume, a veritable river of oil that is all but invisible from the bridge. But it's there all the same, even if no one knows its true extent.
"When we started working with the neighborhood, we were pulling about 150,000 gallons of oil a year," says environmental investigator Bob Bowcock of efforts to extract oil from Greenpoint's soil. "Now they're pulling about that much a month." Bowcock, the lead investigator for a group of Greenpoint residents suing chief polluter Exxon-Mobil, says there could be more than 30 million gallons of oil in the creek and the adjoining neighborhood—even though an oil pump on Newtown Creek has already extracted 17 million gallons. Worse still, the oil under Greenpoint is "gasoline refined product" loaded with carcinogenic materials like benzene, which is both highly flammable and leads to birth defects. "There is a layer of free product floating underneath the homes of the residents of Greenpoint," says Bowcock. "It's like living on top of a leaking gas tank."
Michael Heimbinder, of the Newtown Creek Alliance, blames the oil spill on two centuries of unsafe industrial practices, and says the spill has been ongoing "from the day that refining operations were started on Newtown Creek in the 1860s." He explained that Newtown Creek was one of America's busiest industrial waterways at a time when there was no such thing as corporate responsibility. "When you produced waste, you dumped it in the nearest water body," he said.
But much of the oil came from a waterfront site owned by Standard Oil and its successor company, Exxon-Mobil. Bowcock says that from the 30s through the 50s, Exxon dumped its Greenpoint facility's byproduct into open containment pits, which began leaking into the creek in the 1950s after the area's groundwater pumps were shut off. Over the following decades, millions of gallons of oil seeped into Newtown Creek and the surrounding soil. The health effects have been catastrophic. Longtime resident Laura Hoffman saw her parents die of brain diseases related to the area's high toxicity. "Brain cancer used to be a very rare thing," she said. "In my lifetime I've known maybe 12 people who have had brain cancer, which is a lot."
Luckily, Heimbinder says that Newtown Creek could be declared a superfund site by September, meaning that the federal government would coordinate all cleanup efforts in the area. And Greenpoint residents are in the process of suing Exxon, which would establish some accountability for decades of pollution. "This community deserves a lot" says Hoffman, a co-plaintiff in the suite. "The entire community of Greenpoint is one huge brownfield."
Currently, a boom near the creek's mouth stems the flow of oil into the East River. Visible from the Pulaski Bridge, it is similar to the ones being used in the Gulf of Mexico, and a reminder of one of the most jarring aspects of the Greenpoint spill—that a miniature version of Gulf-style devastation has been ongoing for decades, a few hundred yards from midtown Manhattan.