What was until 2010 the largest oil spill in US history — and remains the largest terrestrial oil spill in the national record — lacked the spectacular optics of the Exxon Valdez’s despoliation of wilderness or the Deepwater Horizon’s underwater explosion, or even the temporary inconvenience of the transmission pipeline leak that closed Southern California beaches last October. “Discovered” by the Coast Guard in 1978, the slow seepage likely dates back to the origins of the oil industry in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. By the 1880s, petroleum refiners along Newtown Creek had already turned the area into an “ecological wasteland,” while contemporaneous public outrage against toxic dumping and noxious fumes achieved little to curb their activity.John D. Rockefeller consolidated all the petroleum operations along Newtown Creek into Standard Oil’s headquarters by 1892; the company and its derivatives operated the Mobil refinery at the foot of North Henry Street until 1966, and Exxon Mobil maintained bulk storage facilities on their property until 1993. Along the way, an estimated 17 to 30 million gallons of petroleum products (gasoline, fuel oil, naphtha) spilled and spread out in a plume under industrial and commercial properties and a residential neighborhood of more than 250 multi-family homes, and into the groundwater and a regional aquifer that would, in an uncontaminated state, be called upon to replace the water supply if the city’s reservoir system failed.
After decades of desultory cleanup measures, Greenpoint residents, clean water advocates Riverkeeper, and the New York State Attorney general’s office all sued ExxonMobil to intensify its efforts. A 2010 settlement with New York State finally compelled ExxonMobil to address the full extent of the Greenpoint spill and its damage, under the supervision of the Department of Environmental Conservation. That process continues with no set end date. A technical cleanup apparatus now spreads across a 174-acre remediation site, with 63 recovery pumps, three groundwater treatment systems, and two soil vapor extraction systems to remove and contain underground liquids and gases. As of last reporting (November 2021), ExxonMobil’s contractors have recovered more than 13 million gallons of oil, which is shipped back to their refineries for processing. They have also recovered six billion gallons of groundwater. After treatment to standards set by the Clean Water Act , it’s released into the Newtown Creek.
In the world of cleanup and compensation, numbers rule, even if harms and remedies are hardly commensurate. While oil is extracted from beneath the neighborhood’s surface, another set of figures animates the activity above ground. As part of the 2010 settlement, ExxonMobil was compelled to pay $19.5 million in direct environmental benefits to make up for the long-term harms suffered by Greenpoint residents. Twenty million dollars is a slap on the wrist for Exxon, whose environmental crimes not only span the globe, but have brought it to the precipice of ecological collapse, and whose profits in the year of the Greenpoint settlement were $30.46 billion. Still, what does it look like for a neighborhood to be made whole after decades, if not centuries, of environmental indignities?
The New York State Attorney General’s office set up a process to get funds quickly to a community that has long been sitting on oil and fighting for redress. Importantly, the community, too, would determine how the funds were spent. In a series of community-wide meetings and through an advisory committee, Greenpoint residents, who lost decades of access to the water, lived with uncertainty about health risks, and worked to hold polluters accountable, set the priorities for new environmental projects: open space enhancements, neighborhood greening, waterfront restoration, and environmental education. The fund’s administrators supported residents to develop, refine, and submit project proposals, and residents selected large-scale projects for funding through two “community preferencing” votes.
After little more than a decade, the Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund (GCEF) is winding down its operations. From 2014 to 2020, the fund awarded grants large and small to local organizations for environmental projects in an area roughly contiguous with the 11222 zip code. GCEF has its own set of statistics to describe the fund’s impact on the neighborhood: 47 projects supported and $17 million disbursed, with another $50.4 million leveraged in matching funds for those projects. There is a measurable count of new street trees (634) as well as seeds purchased, perennials planted, sidewalk trash cans installed, and even the number of species observed (50) on five community bird walks.
We asked photographer Jade Doskow to survey GCEF’s projects after it issued a final round of grants. As photographer in residence at Freshkills Park, Doskow is no stranger to the incongruous aesthetics of recovery at sites that have seen intense, if not obscene, environmental degradation. In late summer and early fall of 2021, she documented all the settlement-funded efforts that are visible across the Greenpoint neighborhood. Enduring environmental hazards register against the attempts to mitigate: Kingsland Wildflowers, a photogenic, multilevel, green roof and education space overlooks an oil storage site, New York City’s largest waste water treatment plant, and Newtown Creek — where lingering oil is joined by other industrial effluents and a regular supply of raw sewage which still await the start of its separate, federally mandated cleanup. Elsewhere, a Department of Sanitation waste transfer station, barges transporting scrap metal, and a commercial waste transfer station figure in the background, as well as new luxury apartments and boutiques. While the neighborhood has now lived through decades of gentrification pressures, environmental activists new and old have sought to protect working class residents and industrial land uses as they push for environmental improvements, a strategy that scholars of sustainability have christened “just green enough.”
“Greening” looks like lots of things. Funds went to plant, restore, and maintain gardens at a heavily used neighborhood park just a block from the edges of the underground plume, and supported the design of a brand-new park under an interstate highway. Planters in asphalt playgrounds and schoolyards, in lush community gardens, and even in the Creek, host native plants and flowers. Sustainable infrastructures abound: solar panels, rainwater collection systems, compost bins, gardening tools, and benches and picnic tables. In addition to places for people to gather, there are habitats for bees, butterflies, birds, bats, salt marshes, mussels, shrimp, and crabs.
Sites for experimentation and education multiply. A “living dock” installed by the Newtown Creek Alliance and new intertidal wetlands have been refined and replicated elsewhere along the Creek. In a demonstration garden in McCarren Park, GrowNYC hosts workshops for student and community gardeners. Twelve-person canoes at the North Brooklyn Community Boathouse serve as “floating classrooms” for environmental education trips. A four-year “Eco-Schools” program outfitted Greenpoint’s three public elementary schools and one middle school with new environmental curricula and programs for children and their families, as well as measures to reduce solid waste and energy consumption. This fall, the schools were working hard to steward and maintain rain gardens and compost systems, especially after the disruptions of summer and Covid-19, and without the dedicated staff that came with the now-concluded program. Picnic benches, water bottle filling stations, and hydroponic systems were returning to action. The Greenpoint Library and Environmental Education Center had also recently opened to the public. Inaugurated in 2020, the new hub for environmental education and repository of environmental history is an exemplary sustainable structure and GCEF’s most prominent and permanent physical stamp on the neighborhood.
Not visible in the photographs, or even tallied in reports, is the heart of the fund’s work: an emphasis on environmental education and stewardship that will long outlast a six-year payout. GCEF-funded programs trained gardeners, tree pruners, and bird watchers to monitor, care for, and work together to protect and improve the local environment. The GCEF process was crafted with an unusual emphasis on building connections and capacity across the community. Local organizations received not just money, but support in conceiving and implementing projects, learning to work together with other groups and find additional partners and supporters beyond the neighborhood. Even when individuals move away, and the settlement funds are spent, an emphasis on building local institutions leaves behind a robust infrastructure for residents to work together and advocate for themselves and their terrain in the long term.
The process GCEF modeled is now being used to administer smaller environmental settlements outside of Buffalo and on Long Island. North Brooklyn may be as far from the oil fields of the Niger Delta or the refineries of coastal Louisiana as we all are from a post-oil future. Yet, a small experiment in reclaiming one and a half miles of damaged landscape might also help to imagine environmental recovery on a global scale: in many shades of green, born out of new structures for self-determination.
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All photographs copyright Jade Doskow
Andrew Hurley, “Creating Ecological Wastelands: Oil Pollution in New York City, 1870-1900,” Journal of Urban History 20, no. 3 (May 1994): 340-364.
Winifred Curran and Trina Hamilton, Just Green Enough: Urban Development and Environmental Gentrification (New York: Routledge, 2017).
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.