The Brooklyn Oil Spill: A Timeline

How state, federal, and oil company officials have mishandled one of the world’s largest oil spills beneath New York City.

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1638 Pieter Janse Wit, captain of the Dutch West India Company, buys Greenpoint, which borders Newtown Creek, from local Indians for beads, axes, and blades. It’s named for grassy expanses that spread to the river.
1867 Wealthy industrialist Charles Pratt builds America’s first modern oil refinery (Astral Oil) on the banks of Newtown Creek. Later, Astral merges with Standard Oil (later Mobil).
1875 As the industrial age gets underway, more than 50 oil refineries line the East River from Williamsburg to Greenpoint. This makes it one of the busiest oil-refining areas in the country.
1886 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle publishes an article titled “Oil Refining: How it Affects Newtown Creek and Vicinity,” which explores potential sources of an acidic sludge blocking the creek. Sometimes the sludge is taken to Barren Island to be used as fertilizer; during the winter it is simply dumped at sea where it often drifts to Coney Island.
1890 A local “smelling committee” is assembled to monitor Newtown Creek. Some of the companies whose facilities line the creek include Acme Fertilizer, Nichols Chemical Works, and U.S. & Canada Degreasing Syndicate. The volume of creek traffic rivals that of the Mississippi.
1894 A Greenpoint resident says of Newtown Creek, “You could at times actually see the smell coming.”
1911 Under the Sherman Antitrust Act, the Supreme Court orders the Standard Oil Trust broken up into 34 companies. It becomes, among other concerns, Standard of Indiana (later Amoco), Standard Oil of New York (later Mobil), Standard Jersey (later Exxon), Standard Oil Ohio (later BP), and Standard Oil California (later Chevron).
1919 Standard Oil’s Brooklyn refinery, covering 20 acres, burns down. The fire may have been intentional, in order to clear land and draw an insurance settlement.
1935 Paragon Oil’s storage facility on Bridgewater Street (named in Greenpoint lawsuit) stops operation.
1947 Brooklyn residents begin getting their water from sources upstate rather than from underground aquifers. By this point, the groundwater has been so depleted there is an open pocket underground, which is rapidly filling with seeping petroleum products.
1950 On October 5, an underground explosion at Huron St. and Manhattan Ave. shatters windows and sends 25 manhole covers shooting 3 stories into the air. An investigation reveals gasoline leaking into the city sewer system.
1959 The Texas Co. buys Paragon Oil Company (named in Greenpoint lawsuit) and changes its name to Texaco Inc.
1966 The water protection group Riverkeeper is formed, then called Hudson River Fisherman’s Association.
1968 Mobil’s Brooklyn refinery, between Greenpoint and Norman Avenues, is demolished to make way for the current Amoco facility.
1969 Amoco’s Greenpoint facility begins storing petroleum. Peerless Importers takes over 10 acres of land at 927 Meeker Ave. and also acquires 42-44 Bridgewater St. from Paragon Oil Co. (then a Texaco subsidiary).
1977 The N.Y. state legislature establishes the N.Y. Environmental Protection and Spill Compensation Fund.
1978 A Coast Guard helicopter flying over the East River on September 2 notices a 400-gallon oil slick. Sump pumps are installed along Newtown Creek and 95,000 gallons of oil are recovered between September 1978 and June 1979.
1979 The Coast Guard’s report on the oil slick describes it as a 17-million-gallon spill that covers 55 acres. On August 29, Captain J. L. Fleishell writes a memo to N.Y. state’s DOT commissioner William C. Hennessey explaining that a cleanup is not the Coast Guard’s responsibility since the spill is not in “navigable water.” He suggests the state’s oil spill fund take care of it.
Standard Oil Co. merges six U.S. gas and oil companies into Chevron U.S.A.
British Petroleum begins operating on a remediation site at the former Amoco plant.
1988 Mobil’s Greenpoint terminal leaks 35,000 gallons of unleaded gasoline. Dangerous vapors invade a city sewer under North Henry St.
1990 On June 18, N.Y. state’s Department of Environmental Conservation and ExxonMobil enter into a consent order.
1996 TRC Environmental Corporation finishes an assessment for Eldorado Coffee Company of a property at 120 Apollo St., which borders Newtown Creek. The report finds elevated levels of benzene, toluene, and other toxic chemicals in air and soil samples, plus petroleum in the groundwater below.
1998 British Petroleum and Amoco merge, becoming BP Amoco, the largest producer of oil and natural gas in the United States.
1998 Exxon and Mobil sign an agreement to merge, becoming ExxonMobil Corporation.
2000 7.7 million gallons of petroleum have been cleaned up.
2001 Chevron and Texaco merge, becoming ChevronTexaco Corp.
2002 Riverkeeper’s Basil Seggos is on Newtown Creek educating immigrants about the dangers of fishing there when he notices an unsightly sheen. He assigns an intern to dig up information and decides to take action.
2004 In May, Riverkeeper files suit against ExxonMobil citing the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
2005 On October 5, Chevron enters into a consent order with N.Y. state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
On July 11, Riverkeeper receives the results from sampling tests for methane and benzene levels in soil and air in homes near the spill. On December 12, Riverkeeper files a complaint against ExxonMobil, BP, and Chevron.
Also in December, Erin Brockovich shows up to rally Greenpoint residents.
2006 On March 3, BP enters into a consent order with N.Y. state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
On January 25, a heated community meeting takes place at the Princess Manor Banquet Hall. Representatives from N.Y. state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, the N.Y. Department of Health, Chevron, BP, and Exxon are there.
On June 21, N.Y. state’s Department of Environmental Conservation refers the case to Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s office for enforcement.
On June 27, the U.S. House authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a public health and safety study of the spill. The vote is 413-0.
2007 On June 28, Exxon restarts its recovery oil pumps, as required by the 1990 consent order.
On July 17, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo files suit against ExxonMobil.
“On September 12, the EPA releases its yearlong study of the spill. The
report says the spill may be as large as 30 million gallons and also that the surrounding air contains high levels of methane vapors. The EPA recommends further study.”

Jen Phillips is a Senior Editorial Fellow at Mother Jones.


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