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N.Y. to sue Exxon over oil spill cleanup


NEW YORK--New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has notified Exxon Mobil Corp. that he plans to sue over the slow pace of its cleanup of the nation's largest oil spill--a decades-old subterranean plume that spread beneath 55 acres in Brooklyn from an area of industrial waterfront.

Citing alleged violations of the federal Clean Water Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the attorney general on Thursday warned that he will file suit unless Exxon Mobil agrees to a new remediation plan. The contaminated area borders Newtown Creek, a 3.5-mile industrial waterway separating Brooklyn and Queens.

At the same time, Mr. Cuomo sent similar notices to four other companies: Chevron Corp. and BP America Inc., for allegedly contributing to the oil spill; and Phelps Dodge Corp. and Keyspan Corp., to compel cleanup of other sites on Newtown Creek.

The action against Exxon Mobil is the latest step in a long-running saga over cleanup of the Greenpoint, Brooklyn area, where the U.S. Coast Guard in 1978 discovered an underground spill that was later estimated at 17 million gallons, far larger than the 11 million-gallon Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.

Exxon Mobil, which operated a refinery and storage facility on Newtown Creek for decades, signed a consent order in 1990 agreeing to clean up the spill, though the order set no deadlines for completing the work. The company later set up two pumping facilities and has since extracted roughly 9 million gallons of the oil.

Property owners and the Tarrytown, N.Y.-based environmental group Riverkeeper, dissatisfied with the cleanup, have sued Exxon Mobil. And last October, Congress directed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to study the area after regulators and Exxon discovered elevated levels of benzene and explosive methane gas seeping into residential and commercial areas near the creek.

Dozens of businesses and about 100 houses sit above the 55-acre spill, according to Riverkeeper.

In his notices to Exxon Mobil, Mr. Cuomo charges that the company's two oil pumping stations are themselves illegally discharging pollutants into Newtown Creek, and that the underground plume continues to seep oil through bulkheads along the waterfront.

The notices to Chevron and BP, which own storage facilities near the Exxon Mobil property, charge the companies with contributing to the spill.

Phoenix-based Phelps Dodge, meanwhile, has been warned that New York may sue it over cleanup of its former Newtown Creek copper smelting plant; and Brooklyn-based Keyspan has been warned on cleanup of sites where predecessor companies operated a manufactured gas plant and other facilities.

An Exxon Mobil spokesman said the company is committed to cleaning up the site and is complying with the 1990 consent order and state rules governing discharges from the site's groundwater treatment systems. He also said the company does not believe it is the only party responsible for the pollution, noting that 50 different refineries operated along Newtown Creek starting in the 1850s.

In a statement, Keyspan said it previously agreed to clean up parts of its properties and will "work cooperatively" with the attorney general and regulators.

BP said it "strongly disagrees" with Mr. Cuomo's decision to include it in the action. The company said in a statement that it has installed a remediation system approved by environmental regulators, extracted three million gallons of oil attributed to the Exxon Mobil site and shown that no oil is leaking from BP's property into Newtown Creek.

Representatives of Chevron and Phelps Dodge could not be reached.