Advocates push New York on pollution cleanups

Apr 21, 2017

Environmental advocates say that New York State officials could do a better job of cleaning up pollution sites caused by the fossil fuels industry that they say in some cases, have dragged on for decades. Cuomo’s environmental aides defend their record.


NYPIRG's Blair Horner and Toxic Targeting's Walter Hang present documents on unfinished oil spill clean ups in New York.
Credit Karen DeWitt

An Ithaca based environmental research group analyzed data on dozens of alleged toxic spills for just one company- Exxon Mobil.

Walter Hang, with Toxics Targeting, says he got the idea to file a freedom of information act request for all of the company’s sites being investigated by state officials when he was doing work last year against the proposed expansion of a gas pipeline across wide swaths of the state.

Hang says he discovered the remains of a pipeline first constructed in the 1880’s by Exxon Mobil’s predecessor, Standard Oil Company. It stretches from Olean, across the Southern Tier and into New Jersey. According to Governor Cuomo’s Department of Environmental Conservation records, least half a dozen oil releases have been reported in towns above the ancient pipeline, but according to they have not been cleaned up.

“This is very disquieting,” said Hang. “Many of these problems have been known about literally for decades, and they still haven’t been cleaned up. And that’s what you see time and time again.”

Other un-remediated sites include oil storage plants in Buffalo, Rochester, and Albany, where, in 2011, 28,000 gallons of kerosene were spilled and, according to the documents, never fully cleaned up.

In Brooklyn, one of the nation’s largest oil spills in an almost century old tank site originally owned by Standard Oil, has not yet been fully dealt with.

Toxics Targeting  also found in the state environmental agency’s documents that numerous un- remedied spills could threaten groundwater on Long Island, including reports in Sag Harbor that oil was seeping up through asphalt near a boat yard that was once an oil tank farm.  

Hang says the state does have strong laws for polluter liability, once it’s determined who is responsible for a spill. But he says there are no deadlines on when the state has to make a decision, and the paper trail shows years and decades of delays in the investigative process, with in some cases, references to key notes being mysteriously “lost”.

“The companies are just dragging their feet,” Hang said. “They are studying everything to death.”

Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, which collaborated on the story, says Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers need to “crack the ship” to get the clean ups finished faster , and should hold public hearings and if necessary, pass new laws to achieve that.

“We’ve only identified, in a sense, the tip of the iceberg,” Horner said. “This is not something that we should sweep under the rug.”

Hang says there is an existing state remediation fund for oil spills, but the money is limited.

“That’s why you see these endless negotiations year after year,” Hang said. He recommends that state government take the lead and preemptively clean up the spills and contamination, then bill they company and seek legal action against the polluters, if necessary.

The groups stress that they are not assessing who is liable here, they are merely reporting what the Department of Environmental Conservation has said in the documents, which assign no penalties to the company. The data is on the website, toxicstargeting.com.

A spokesman for the DEC Sean Mahar, in a statement, defended the agency’s track record.

“DEC rapidly responds to and cleans up thousands of contaminated sites every year in every corner of the state,” Mahar said. “To ensure that the environment and public health are protected at all times while aggressively pursuing and holding those accountable for the contamination”.

Mahar did not specifically explain why the documents appear to show years of delays in some of the incidents, though DEC officials say none of these spills highlighted by Toxics Targeting  are immediately threatening public health.  

And Mahar personally attacked Horner and Hang, calling them “irresponsible” “headline grabbers” who are promoting “misinformation” .

​Exxon Mobil concurs with the DEC's account . ​In a statement, William  Holbrook Corporate Media Relations Senior Advisor, said "Allegations made by NYPIRG are inaccurate. Where historical impacts exist as a result of its own or its predecessors’ operations, the company works under the oversight of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to address those impacts. Remediation of legacy sites is a broad issue for industry and ExxonMobil is an active participant. ExxonMobil takes its environmental responsibility seriously and is committed to meeting its compliance and remediation obligations."