You have to wonder why it has taken so long. It happened over 57 years ago when Exxon Mobil leaked at least 17 million gallons of oil in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint. The 55-acre spill, which is estimated to have been larger than the Exxon Valdez catastrophe, went undiscovered until the late 1970s. Since then little has been done to hold the guilty parties accountable. But on February 8, New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo finally filed notices of intent to sue Exxon Mobil and several other companies to force a massive clean up of the polluted neighborhood.
Tons of oil still plagues nearby Newton Creek, where studies have shown that dried sediment samples when weighed are made up of one-tenth oil. Unfortunately, under Eliot Spitzer’s reign as attorney general, Exxon Mobil had little to worry about. Aside from a few lawsuits levied by Greenpoint residents and environmental groups, New York State did little to pressure Exxon Mobil to remediate the ecological tragedy.
It has long been a case of bitter environmental racism, where the working class residents of Greenpoint were for decades left to inhale toxic fumes while Exxon Mobil and others, including BP and Chevron, continued to evade liability. But now that Greenpoint is becoming attractive to wealthy developers the State is finally stepping in.
“The Brooklyn-Queens waterfront has the potential to be New York’s Gold Coast, with sparkling towers, schools, parks and libraries,” City Council member Eric Gioia recently told The New York Times. “Cleaning Newtown Creek is critical to that vision.”
Gioia isn’t kidding. In May of 2005 the Greenpoint/Williamsburg waterfront became part of a massive rezoning project that has brought in an influx of multimillion-dollar condos and luxury apartments. The gentrification that began to haunt these neighborhoods since the early 1990s has only escalated in recent years. Sections that were once home to manufacturing and light industry are now dominated by hundreds of residentially converted loft buildings and high-rise apartment complexes.
And the new development projects are big money makers. Many local residents have been and will be pushed out by the “Manhattanization” of the neighborhood. Transformation has quickly engulfed Greenpoint and it is hard to know exactly what the fallout of the city’s rezoning initiative will be. Certainly it has already changed the face of Greenpoint’s main shopping districts as well as Williamsburg’s hip Bedford Ave., where corporate chains are challenging local restaurants and pubs. Many long-time residents also fear that the growth is happening at such a pace that the city will not be able to properly oversee the growth. Many others are simply getting out while they can.
Indeed Greenpoint and the vaporous Newton Creek must be cleaned up at once. There is no question about that. However, the timing of Andrew Cuomo’s actions is certainly suspect. The oil slick that has lingered under the streets and homes of Greenpoint for the past fifty years ought to have been addressed long ago, not so many years later when there is an economic incentive for doing so.
JOSHUA FRANK is the author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush and edits www.BrickBurner.org