I first learned about this on NPR (National Public Radio), on the Leonard Lopait Show; a segment called "Underreported." Here's a link
to another article on this disaster in the U.S.:
On a foggy October day in 2002, Basil Seggos first saw the sheen on the surface of the water. He and his colleagues had launched an old wooden-hulled oyster boat from the Dyckman marina in Inwood, and headed south, down the Harlem and East rivers. They were on a mission to document fishing and crabbing spots on the riverfront so that local anglers could be warned not to eat their catch. When Seggos’s boat reached the mouth of Newtown Creek, the finger of water that separates Brooklyn from Queens, they decided to sail into the creek to check out its unnatural landscape—miles of waste-processing plants, gasoline-storage facilities, and abandoned refineries. The boat passed floating auto parts, crumbling bulkheads, and rusting pipes spewing filthy-looking water. Then, about a mile in, Seggos saw it: oil coating the surface of the water from shore to shore and extending upstream for another half-mile or so. “It was everywhere, all over the shoreline.” Officially, Seggos was running an outreach program for Riverkeeper, RFK Jr.’s environmental organization, and the organization’s protocol in situations like these is to stop and call the state Department of Environmental Conservation hotline. The call is supposed to provoke an immediate reaction, but no one showed up. The next day, Seggos called again. “We’d never even heard of a spill there before,” says Seggos. “But they told me they already had an open case on it and they were handling it.”
What Seggos discovered—or rediscovered—wasn’t an oil spill, exactly. Rather, it was a mix of gasoline, solvents, and associated poisons bubbling up from the very ground: a thin dribble that betrays the presence of a supertanker’s worth of the stuff submerged in the age-old geology of Greenpoint. It’s actually more than a century’s worth of spills, leaks, and waste dumped by oil companies that has pooled into a vast underground lake, more than 55 acres wide and up to 25 feet thick. First discovered by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1978, the Greenpoint spill has been estimated at anywhere between 17 million and 30 million gallons—three times more oil than the Exxon Valdez spill. That makes it the largest known oil spill in American history.
The thick, dark ooze is a hydrocarbon cocktail: part degraded gasoline, part fuel oil, part naphtha—the chemical from which napalm takes its name. All of it is toxic. Dig seven or eight feet down—the typical depth of a basement—and in some parts you’ll find benzene vapor, a known carcinogen, at concentrations as high as 1,560 parts per million. That’s more than 100 times the short-term (fifteen-minute) exposure limits set by OSHA for industrial workers. More recently, PCEs (perchloroethylenes) and TCEs (trichloroethylenes), suspected carcinogens that are able to dissolve in water, have been found in the underground oil plume—not to mention the Queens water supply. Whether the plume is the source of the contamination is a matter of dispute.
The good news is that the toxic goop saturating the sandy soil is at least partly capped by a semi-permeable clay layer, the natural legacy of Brooklyn’s 10,000-year-old geology. But the oil can still travel laterally. Experts advising some of the residents suing say they’ve found the stuff beyond the contaminated zone, leading them to believe the lagoon may be much larger—up to 30 million gallons—and encroaching deep into the residential side of Greenpoint. The oil companies have removed 9 million gallons so far. So depending on whose experts you believe, there could still be more than 20 million gallons of toxins sloshing around down below.
Edited by Analog Kid, 19 July 2010 - 04:14 PM.