Historic Oil Spills

Greenpoint Oil Spill

January 13, 2013, 8:23 pm


caption Oil Seepage on Newtown Creek (Source: NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation)


The Greenpoint Oil Release, so named because the series of oil spills occurred in Greenpoint, NY is presumed to be among the largest releases of oil to date in the world. The amount of oil is estimated to be between 17-30 million gallons, approximately 50% more oil than the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Unlike spills like the Exxon Valdez , the Greenpoint Oil Release was not an episodic event, but rather an accretion of oil from many of the refineries on Newtown Creek. Spillage may have occurred almost immediately in 1866, when oil refineries first began their operations on Newtown Creek. With the lack of environmental statutes now in place, many of the refineries didn’t bother to set up systems that would have prevented spillage. This enabled the oil to enter underground reservoirs and groundwater, and then eventually seep into Newtown Creek.

In September 1978, the Coast Guard noticed an oil slick on Newtown Creek, which drew their attention to the possibility of pollution in the area. The slick, however, was only a symptom of the 17 million gallon spill that had permeated 55 acres of the soil under Greenpoint, NY. The long period of time over which oil was released has contributed to controversy surrounding the clean-up. Exxon/Mobil claims that clean-up activities by the company were started in 1979. In 1990, Mobil entered into agreements with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSEDC) to update its recovery systems, and only then did real progress on the clean-up begin to occur.

History of the Spill

Greenpoint, NY is situated in northwest Brooklyn. It once had a heavily industrial region in the northeast section of the town due to the presence of Newtown Creek. Since 1866, many oil refineries had taken up residence along Newtown Creek, an estuary that separates the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. Leaking tanks and pipelines, spillage, and an explosion in 1950 may have contributed to the presence of between 17 and 30 million gallons of oil in the ground. The spill was first detected when, in September 1978, a helicopter patrol by the U.S. Coast Guard noticed an oil slick on the surface of Newtown Creek. It was concluded that approximately 52 acres under Greenpoint was polluted with around 17 million gallons of petroleum. The Coast Guard proceeded to install recovery sumps that stopped the seepage to the surface, but did not affect the amount of petroleum in the ground. As of 2007, however, companies such as BP PLC (British Petroleum Public Limited Company, commonly known as BP) and Exxon/Mobil have recovered 8.8 million gallons of the product (although the Environmental Protection Agency says that this proposed quantity may be overly optimistic).


The effects of the Greenpoint Oil Spill are debated between oil companies, such as Exxon/Mobil, and the residents of towns surrounding the spill, such as Greenpoint. There is great concern that the citizens of Greenpoint will be more susceptible to asthma and cancer, due to various vapors in the petroleum (such as benzene) which are known carcinogens. A recent NYSEDC study that tested residential blocks above the spill area concluded that there is no evidence of dangerous vapors seeping into people’s homes in amounts that could indicate a vapor intrusion phenomenon. The concentrations found in residents’ homes are consistent with concentrations found in outside air. After these tests, NYSEDC recommended continued studies of vapor concentrations in and outside of homes.

Soil vapor tests by the non-profit environmental watchdog organization Riverkeeper have come out positive to indicate that the Greenpoint area has vapor concentrations of carcinogens necessary to cause cancer. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report states that in some commercial areas that the amount of methane found was above the Upper Explosive Limit (UEL), which means that there was such an abundance of methane in the air that there was not enough oxygen to ignite. In 2006, Exxon-Mobil contractors drew samples from the soil in Greenpoint, of which five contained benzene. One of the samples from directly above the plume contained 5.4ppb of the carcinogen, which is drastically larger than the minimum amount necessary of 0.4ppb to increase one’s chances of cancer.

According to the EPA report, before 1947, groundwater from Brooklyn was the source of town water in Greenpoint and its surrounding towns in the Brooklyn borough. The pumping of groundwater, however, caused a severe depression in the Earth, which changed the flow of the water. When local water was replaced by imported water from upstate reservoirs, the flow was corrected and the water from the polluted area of Greenpoint now seeped into Newtown Creek. This has caused much of the wildlife of the creek to suffer, because of the toxic vapors and chemicals contained in the oil.

Environmental Litigation

The source(s) of the Greenpoint Oil Spill are hard to pinpoint, since many oil refining companies have been conducting business on Newtown Creek for years. Many of the refineries were consolidated into Standard Oil Trust, which was then reverted to the Standard Oil Company of New York, which was purchased by Mobil. The site was broken up into different properties that were maintained by Mobil (now Exxon/Mobil), Amoco (now known as BP/Amoco), and Paragon Oil (now a subsidiary of Chevron-Texaco). Exxon/Mobil is considered the most likely culprit of the spill, according to the EPA Report. However, in 2005, the company asserted that Paragon Oil, and not Exxon/Mobil, was responsible for the oil spills.

On October 20, 2005, local residents within the area of the oil recovery operation, which is located in the predominantly commercial/industrial eastern section of Greenpoint near the East Williamsburg Industrial Park, filed a lawsuit against Exxon/Mobil, BP, and Chevron in Brooklyn State Supreme Court, alleging they have suffered adverse health effects as a result of the spill. This lawsuit has lead to studies such as the one conducted by the EPA to try to determine the damages incurred by the oil spill on the community. Other studies will be funded by the Oil Spill Fund of the State of New York, and Exxon/Mobil’s agreement with the state will be non-negotiable until the full size of the spill is known. In 2007, State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, on behalf of the State of New York, brought a lawsuit against Exxon/Mobil as well as BP and Amoco. New York State asserts that Exxon/Mobil is discharging petroleum products into Newtown Creek and failed to notify New York of its violations of the Clean Water Act. The Attorney General also accuses Exxon/Mobil of being aware of seepage at its bulkheads and doing nothing to correct its illegal discharge of oil, as well as harming the environment of the state of New York. Yet as of December 2008, the lawsuits of residents, environmental advocacy groups such as Riverkeeper, and the State Attorney General against Exxon/Mobil are still ongoing. The plaintiffs cite the spills as well as Exxon/Mobil's slow clean-up of the site as grounds for prosecution.

Clean-Up Efforts

Currently there are three free product recovery systems operating in Greenpoint: two of the systems are owned by Exxon/Mobil and the other is owned by BP. From 1990 to 2005, Exxon-Mobil also ran the recovery systems by the bulkhead of Newtown Creek, which was the old site of Paragon Oil, but that area has now been conferred to Chevron-Texaco for clean-up. Free product recovery systems are used to get rid of excess oil in the soil and prevent it from entering the water table. Companies can decide to utilize a pump to depress the water table and force the oil into wells, skim wells to remove the free product, or eradicate both vapors and fluids from the ground. In 1990, Mobil signed consent forms with the NYSDEC to upgrade its recovery systems. In 2005, Chevron upgraded its existing booms and recovered product from wells in the area. 8.8 million gallons of oil have been recovered from Greenpoint, but these numbers are disputed by the EPA.

In February, 2007, the Department of Environmental Conservation of New York (DEC) notified Exxon/Mobil of its intentions to sue under the Clean Water Act and various other laws. Exxon/Mobil, in turn, proceeded to turn off its ground water pumps which are used to collect and treat the petroleum and switched to a passive recovery system, which had less than 8 percent of the efficiency of the prior system. Due to the lack of oil being recovered by the ground pumps, more oil continued to seep into Newtown Creek. The DEC cited Exxon/Mobil for a violation of state laws and provided temporary authorization for Exxon/Mobil to continue recovery operations while it reviewed its application for a State Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit (SPDES).

As of August 2008, United States Congresspersons Nydia Velázquez (NY) of Brooklyn and Manhattan and Anthony Weiner (NY) of Brooklyn and Queens have encouraged the EPA to assess Newtown Creek to be recognized as a Superfund site. They have been aided in their efforts by United States Congresspersons Gene Green (TX) and Hilda Solis (CA), as well as United States Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (NY). The EPA would evaluate four areas that are supposedly largely polluted. If Newtown Creek is named a Superfund site, the area would be entitled to a significant amount of money from the federal government to aid the clean-up, and the EPA would be more able to further prosecute companies liable for the pollution.


Note: This article was researched and written by a student at Boston University participating in the Encyclopedia of Earth's (EoE) Student Science Communication Project. The project encourages students in undergraduate and graduate programs to write about timely scientific issues under close faculty guidance. All articles have been reviewed by internal EoE editors, and by independent experts on each topic.

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caption Public Domain Image




Hill, K. (2013). Greenpoint Oil Spill. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/51cbeded7896bb431f694c96


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