On Wednesday afternoon, Attorney General and Governor Elect Andrew Cuomo made his way to Newtown Creek to announce that he has reached a settlement with ExxonMobil that will yield $19.5 million in remediation funds for neighborhoods affected by the 50-year-old oil spill. Cuomo sued ExxonMobil Corporation in 2007 over a 17 million gallon oil spill in Newtown Creek, and a violation of the Clean Water Act. Cuomo demanded that the corporation take responsibility for the spill, and be charged with cleaning up the petroleum plumes underneath the land straddling the Creek. This settlement, reached by court order, comes on the heels of the National Priority List designation of Newtown Creek earlier this year that effectively granted the Federal Government oversight over the cleanup of the sediment. This consent order obligates ExxonMobil to clean up oil, soil, groundwater and vapor, which previous consent decrees do not include.
ExxonMobil will be required to pay $19.5 million in environmental benefits funds, to be administered in Greenpoint. Additionally, ExxonMobil is responsible for $250,000 in civil penalties, to be deposited in New York’s Oil Spill Cleanup Fund; $250,000 in natural resources damages, to go towards necessary repairs; and up to $5 million in past and future oversight costs.
The agreement draws to a close a three-plus-year lawsuit against ExxonMobil, filed by Cuomo. Apart from the remediation funds, ExxonMobil will also be legally required to cover the cost of cleaning up not only the oil in Newtown Creek, but also contaminated soil, vapor and groundwater, and do so in a timely manner. According to Cuomo, the cleanup comes with a price tag of “many, many multiples of this $25 million.”
The court order outlines a series of initial deadlines that ExxonMobil must meet, including a plan for identifying the scope of contamination within 90 days of the agreement; a report on groundwater problems within 120 days of the agreement; a report on soil problems within 180 days of the agreement; a plan to involve the community within 90 days of the agreement; a series of status reports and evaluations of new technology to be submitted annually.
“It is a beautiful day in many, many ways. This is a great settlement—it does what should have been done decades ago. It is a real comprehensive cleanup with real milestones, real accountability, real supervision and ExxonMobil will be held to task for what happened,” Cuomo said. “It was one of the first cases we got involved in and one of the last cases I’ll be handling as Attorney General, so for me it comes full-circle. It’s amazing what you can do when you stand in principle and have great colleagues. It is a tremendous victory.”
Cuomo praised the Greenpoint community for its resilience and failure to give up the fight for Newtown Creek, emphasizing the role of Riverkeeper, a civil watchdog group that has been involved in issues surrounding the Creek for decades.
“Finally attention has been paid to the Greenpoint community, living with the largest oil spill in New York State,” said Riverkeeper Executive Director Paul Gallay. “It’s got specifics and it’s aggressive, and there are consequences. Participation and transparency are built into it as well. Attorney General Cuomo has delivered the order this community needs. Governor Cuomo will turn that order into the cleanup it deserves.”
An independent outreach coordinator will be hired to ensure adequate community participation, and help identify projects that will be funded. Projects will be selected based on responses to a Request for Proposals that will be issued.
Whereas the original lawsuit filed in 2007 against ExxonMobil included four other corporations—BP, Phelps-Dodge, National Grid and Texaco—this settlement is specific to ExxonMobil: The other corporations are dealing directly with Department of Environmental Conservation.
“ExxonMobil is pleased to have reached a mutually agreeable resolution to this lawsuit. We will maintain our focus on our clean up efforts in Greenpoint, Brooklyn,” said ExxonMobil North Brooklyn Community Liaison Carolina Asirifi in a written statement. “The health, safety and welfare of those living and working in the Greenpoint community continue to be our top priority. ExxonMobil takes its environmental responsibilities seriously.”
Several community advocates, neighborhood leaders and elected officials including Senator Martin Malave Dilan, Assemblyman Joe Lentol, Borough President Marty Markowitz, who joined Riverkeeper’s lawsuit against ExxonMobil in 2006, and Councilmember Stephen Levin, in addition to Evelyn Cruz representing Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, were in attendance, voicing their support for the court order, the necessity of cleaning the creek and their gratitude for Cuomo’s action.
“Throughout my entire career I have been a strong supporter of environmental causes,” Dilan said. “I am proud of the community for banding together and standing behind Greenpoint and Newtown Creek, as we’ve worked to change the tide of more than a decade of industrial negligence.”
Assemblyman Lentol thanked Cuomo for his service, saying that he “has done our community a great service by holding ExxonMobil accountable for its pollution in Greenpoint. Today was a great day for Greenpoint, for the environment and for Newtown Creek. I am grateful to have been a part of it and to all of the people who fought so hard to get this environmental social injustice the attention it deserved.”
Congresswoman Velazquez added that “Newtown Creek has been a symbol of environmental catastrophe…Today, we are turning this into a symbol of hope, restoration and community partnership.”
Community residents in attendance were enthusiastic about the promise of remediation funds, as well as rigorous enforcement of a clean-up schedule, albeit cautiously optimistic.
“It’s a good thing, it’s a start,” said Irene Klementowich, a longtime Newtown Creek activist and Greenpoint resident. “The money is there, but how will it be divided? Is it enough? Talk is cheap, who will really be a part of this?”
Christine Holowacz of Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee and Greenpoint Waterfront Association for Parks and Planning expressed her excitement about the remediation funds and the expedited cleanup plan.
“This important settlement will reverse the tide of pollution that has for too long gone unabated, and allow our community to repair itself so future generations can survive and thrive here,” she said. “This settlement will fund environmental projects that will directly benefit our community and preserve it for the future. What I like about it has details, a schedule, deadlines—there will be consequences.”
On November 23, Cuomo will hold a meeting in Greenpoint to discuss the grant process. The meeting will be held from 6:30-9pm at the Polish Slavic Center at 176 Java Street.