State attorney general Andrew Cuomo filed suit against oil giant Exxon Mobil to clean up an oil spill along Newtown Creek that is estimated to be twice as large as the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. The suit also names BP, Chevron, KeySpan and Phelps Dodge and is seeking action and fines against the companies that spilled approximately 20 million gallons of fuel into the ground and water of industrial Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The New York Times reports that environmental group Riverkeeper filed its own suit against Exxon Mobil in 2004 after it found the ground in Greenpoint heavily contaminated and benzene fumes were even emanating into the air.

In 1990, New York State formed an agreement with Mobil Oil, which later merged with Exxon, that the company would clean up the spill under no defined time frame and without reference to cleaning Newtown Creek or the contaminated soil of Greenpoint. Dissatisfied with the progress that was or wasn't made over the last 17 years, Cuomo decided that a lawsuit was necessary. Newtown Creek is the body of water that partially separates Brooklyn and Queens.

The contamination of the soil below Greenpoint was the subject of an article in New York magazine that we noted in June. While the lawsuit filed recently against Exxon Mobil dates the spill to 1950, the New York article details how pollution has been a problem in Greenpoint dating back to the 1870s, when 50 refineries lined the banks of the creek and environmental regulation was virtually nonexistent. In 1919, a fire at a Standard Oil refinery in Brooklyn dumped 110 million gallons of oil that either burned or seeped into the ground.

The New York Times reports today that Exxon Mobil says that it takes its commitments under the 1990 agreement seriously and has recovered 9.3 million gallons of spilt oil. Cuomo was unpersuaded though, and says that it is outrageous that the problem has been allowed to persist for as long as it has.

(image from newtown creek, by samuraiphotog at flickr)