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Big oil's big cleanup in Brooklyn

By Allan Chernoff, CNN Senior Correspondent
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Oil spill trapped beneath Brooklyn
  • Three major oil companies are cleaning up a spill in Brooklyn, New York
  • The oil is trapped in the ground -- and some of it has been there for 150 years
  • The area was dotted with oil refineries from the 1860s until the 1960s
  • Residents say the oil is a health threat; oil companies say it's too far underground

(CNN) -- Beneath the Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint, New York, is a giant oil spill that BP, ExxonMobil and Chevron are slowly cleaning up.

The oil companies have been at it for three decades, putting into perspective BP's pledge to residents of the Gulf states that its cleanup of the Deepwater Horizon spill will go on for "as long as it takes" to "make this right."

This spill is different though. The oil is trapped in the ground, sitting on top of the water table, across more than 50 acres of residential and industrial blocks. In some areas it's 3 feet under; at other points it's as much as 50 feet underground. And some of the oil has been sitting there for 150 years.

The environmental mess goes back to the 1860s when oil refineries dotted the landscape along Newtown Creek (which the Environmental Protection Agency recently declared a Superfund site.) For a century, oil companies operated in the neighborhood, allowing petroleum to seep into the ground and spill into the water.

The last refinery closed in the 1960s, and today BP has the only active petroleum facility in the area, a storage terminal.

BP, Exxon Mobil and Chevron did not directly spill most of the oil. They inherited their respective properties in Greenpoint from predecessor companies they had acquired. But, they now hold responsibility for the cleanup.

"BP continues to work with the Department of Environmental Conservation to optimize recovery. To date, BP has recovered more than 3.5 million gallons of free petroleum product," a company representative told CNN.

"ExxonMobil takes its environmental responsibility seriously and is committed to remediating the historical petroleum contamination in Greenpoint," said Carolina Asirifi, spokeswoman for ExxonMobil Environmental Services.

"We are continuously working to enhance our remediation activities and accelerate the recovery of underground petroleum products."

But to neighborhood residents who complain of health effects, the cleanup is far too slow.

"This is Patrick McManis and he had stomach cancer. And this is my mother. My mother had the cervix cancer," said Theresa Breznak shuffling through rosary cards of family and friends on Diamond Street who have been stricken with cancer.

"A lot of breast cancer. This is one of my best friends, she had breast cancer. And now her sister has it." Breznak counts 40 people on the block who have either battled or died from cancer.

"The greatest potential exposure pathway is possible vapor intrusion into the residential properties," warned the Environmental Protection Agency in a September 2007 study of Greenpoint.

"It's emissions that are coming out of the ground. Some of them have been known to be benzene fumes, which is a known carcinogen," complains Tommy Stagg, another life-long resident of Diamond Street.

ExxonMobil disagrees with that analysis.

"We do not believe the underground plume, which is generally located up to 40 feet below the Earth's surface in the residential section, poses any health or safety risks," Asirifi said.

In all, the energy companies have extracted more than 11 million gallons of petroleum since the early '80s. But, last year New York state estimated there was still about 14 million gallons of oil remaining below the ground here.

The companies are extracting oil at a rate of about 900,000 gallons a year by injecting water into the ground at various sites around the neighborhood, then pumping out petroleum. At that rate, it'll be well over a decade before the neighborhood is cleaned up.

Residents and environmentalists said the oil giants need to respond faster.

"I'm not seeing the results in my lifetime, I'm 62 years old," Stagg said.

BP has seven pumps at work. It is installing another four that it says will be operational by the end of the year.

"We continue to work with the Department of Environmental Conservation to optimize recovery," BP said.

"We are going to be there as long as takes to develop a long term solution," said Chevron spokesman Stan Luckoski.

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