Monday, February 4, 2008

It's Stunning

over nearly a century, an estimated 20-30 million gallons of oil has leaked into the water and soil of Greenpoint in Brooklyn, NY. The story got some mounting attention in 2007, as lawsuits are prepared to combat inaction on the part of Exxon and five other companies involved in an enormous toxic waste situation. Read here here here and hear here.

A report this month from the Environmental Protection Agency suggested that the Newtown spill may be twice as large as first believed — some 30 million gallons, nearly three times the size of the Alaska spill. It has polluted the 4-mile strip of waterway and some 55 residential and commercial acres around it, gathering in subsurface reservoirs, mixing with groundwater, creating toxic vapors and and seeping, slowly but inexorably, into the creek. One major concern is the reported leakage of chemical vapor into homes.

Vapors into the homes... arsenic - lead... we have no idea what this means -- has meant to families to children over the years. What effect on families - family histories... could toxic fumes cause toxic behavior? Physical illness? Mental illness...

I've just returned home from a week in Brooklyn, and somehow it seems even closer -- Greenpoint, according to NPR is still home to Polish immigrants -- which is what it was 60 years ago, when the bulk of the spill occurred; which is what it was 60 years ago when my father and his brother Al were playing bloody knuckles and my grandmother and Ellie were standing on the stoop gossiping while the fresh kilbasi boiled inside... when we drank the water...

The spill, originally several times the size of the Exxon Valdez oil leak, resulted from an accident in the 1950s and lay undiscovered until 1978. In notices of intent to sue that were sent to the five companies, Andrew M. Cuomo, the state attorney general, said that so much oil had leaked into the creek that some samples of its sediment, when dried and weighed, were nearly one-tenth oil.

The notices also disclosed that an internal study by one of the companies found nearly 100 different pollutants in the creek water or sediment, including benzene, arsenic and lead.

Of course, the timing is... not for the Polish immigrants. Brooklyn is gentrifying. Already the brick row house my family sold a few decades ago for about $60,000 would be worth probably ten time that; imagine if it wasn't nestled in toxic waste...

“The Brooklyn-Queens waterfront has the potential to be New York’s Gold Coast, with sparkling towers, schools, parks and libraries,” said Eric Gioia, a City Council member whose Queens district abuts the creek. “Cleaning Newtown Creek is critical to that vision.”

Still the ability to ignore is amazing. On the NPR story, a carpet cleaner got Exxon to pay for a fan to ventilate his work area because the smell of oil was so strong.

"with the fans running we don't smell them [the fumes] -- with the fans running, I think they stay underground."

I love the language of that. With the fans running the fumes stay underground.

Brooklyn is home to the biggest oil disaster in this country. I read about this in October, and I've been trying to figure out how to make sense of it since then -- to put into some sort of context...

maybe there simply is none.

When I was about 12 the house across the street from my grandmother's burned to the ground. I wasn't allowed out on the stoop, but I stood at the window and watched it go up -- later I took a picture which is still hanging on my wall --

and the flames swallowed up what had been. And there were rumors of intent -- murmors of intent and neglect and what a pity

and we all stood and watched -- and the fire trucks came late -- and everything was destroyed.

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