Gravesend Bay is not a graveyard.
That was the message at a Friday, April 7 press conference at which city and state elected officials joined with local residents and activists to condemn the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) for not properly alerting the community to a 27,000-gallon diesel fuel spill that occurred in Gravesend Bay last week.
Instead, politicians claimed, their offices were tipped off by “local advocates.”
“We found out, not through [these agencies] but through advocates, that a 27,000-gallon oil spill occurred here in Gravesend Bay,” said Councilmember Mark Treyger, who organized the press conference, held at the Gravesend Bay Promenade, adjacent to the Ceasar’s Bay Shopping Center. “It occurred last Thursday [March 30] at around 2:45 a.m. and it wasn’t until yesterday that my office finally made contact with someone from the DEC and that is unacceptable.
“And what makes it that much more outrageous,” the pol went on, “is that literally a few months ago, the DEC came down to a meeting [where] they acknowledged that they failed to notify [this community] of about 200,000 gallons of raw, untreated sewage being dumped into Coney Island Creek on a daily basis by Beach Haven Apartments. They knew about this and they said nothing.”
That discovery, he said, was instead made by students who had been testing the waters for a school project and uncovered abnormally high levels of bacteria.
“They acknowledged this and they came down to our community and said, ‘We have to improve communication,’” Treyger said, stressing that news of the spill was delivered to his office specifically through an e-mail that was circulating internally amongst state and federal agencies. “In the memo it said, ‘Media interest: none.’ Look at all the media today. You know why there was no interest? No one knew about it.”
The party responsible for the spill, Bayside Fuel Oil Depot, was cited for seven oil spills since the 1970s, according to New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.
“This is not a natural disaster. It is man-made and these agencies have got to [put a stop to it,]” he told crowds at the presser, promising also to have his audit investigation unit commence “a top-to-bottom review of procedures as it relates to communication, as it relates to clean-up and as it relates to holding these oil companies accountable.”
However, Senior Vice President of Bayside Vincent Allegretti contended that it’s unfair to say the family-owned and operated business is responsible for seven spills.
“That is a total falsehood,” he told this paper, contending that, at the company’s Smith Street terminal (which it did not own until 1994), it has not had any spills of its own, but rather an inherited pre-existing spill from a previous owner. “We were actually the good guys there.
“On Shore Parkway, [the media] is reporting three spills and that’s somewhat true,” he went on, citing a spill in 1988 that occurred for the same reason this latest one did, human error. “Then, there were a number of other ‘spills’ as [the DEC] would say similar to the situation over on Smith Street in which we did not put them there – they were from a previous owner – and we were the good guys. And then this one.”
The same could be said for the company’s Grand Street location, Allegretti said.
“I’ve been employed by the company since I was 13 and I went onto work the oil terminals in the mid-’80s,” he went on. “In the time frame that I’m here, we’ve had two real reportable spills. To say seven is absurd.” To boot, Allegretti said, Bayside Fuel did not own the Shore Parkway terminal until 1984.
“Both [of our own spills] were human error,” he acknowledged, noting also that the employee responsible for the March 30 spill was a “veteran” who has been working for Bayside for close to 30 years. “It was an honest mistake, and one that we take full responsibility for.”
Furthermore, Allegretti alleged, the idea that 27,000 gallons of oil was spilled directly into the bay is a stretch of the truth.
“To say it spilled into the bay is also a total falsehood,” he said. “There was a tank overflow, and that oil spilled onto our own tank. The spill wasn’t into the bay, it was an overflow onto a tank on our property. From there, it spilled over the tank and onto the beach, eventually working its way to the bay with the tide, which fortunately, was low.
“I’m not denying that it happened, or that it affected the bay,” he said, “but to say that it spilled into the bay is inaccurate. Taking evaporation into account, a very small percentage of those 27,000 gallons actually made it into the bay. And we’ve put measures in place to [remedy that].”
In terms of contacting the community, Allegretti told this paper that he “would have never considered calling a politician,” and that, instead, he was – and still is – hard at work repairing the damage.
“We’re not new at this, we’ve been doing this since 1965 and I myself have been doing this since the ‘80s,” he said. “People drive a car, they get car insurance. Accidents happen. Do you stop driving cars?
“Do I wish it didn’t happen, sure,” he went on. “But it happened, and it’s about how you respond to it. We have limited the impact that this spill has and will have [on the bay and the community] because we acted fast. We did everything we were supposed to. We contained it and responded.”
The spill comes just weeks after the discovery of asbestos stalled construction at the nearby site of the long-protested South Brooklyn Marine Transfer Station, once home to the former long-loathed Bensonhurst incinerator that was found to be operating without a permit from the 1950s through the 1980s, and which left behind it a variety of toxic substances in the water, along with unexploded World War II munitions at the bottom of the bay.
Democratic District Leader Nancy Tong — co-chair of a local task force on the still-under-construction transfer station — spoke at the presser on behalf of both herself and Assemblymember William Colton who, at a Thursday, April 6 Assembly debate on a budget bill containing the $2.5 billion clean water grant, applauded the assembly speaker for supporting the budget, but also made clear his stance on both the spill and the handling of the transfer station site.
“I announced my outrage to the de Blasio administration and DEC continuing to show an indifference to a long pattern of environmental disasters in Gravesend Bay on and near the Southwest Brooklyn Garbage Station site,” the pol said in a statement, which also cited the release of ponding waters from the old incinerator site as well as the blowing off of a large piece of the roof during construction, which, last summer, nearly hit a person and a car. “I criticized the failure of the city and DEC to give notice to the public and likened such outrageous conduct to the handling of the situation that led to the disaster at Hoosick Falls.”
After years of outcry, the water in Rensselaer County’s Hoosick Falls tested positive for the chemical Perfluorooctanoic Acid, which has been linked to serious health problems such as cancer and was causing members of the village to fall ill.
At the end of the day, all the Gravesend community really wants is some answers.
“How did this spill happen, why did it happen and how will it not happen again?” asked Treyger. “I refuse to believe that this is just a small drop of oil.”
In a press release sent out the same morning as the conference, DEC contended that it will continue to hold Bayside Oil accountable for the cleanup of the spill and that, with more than 5,000 gallons already recovered and protective barriers put up to contain the spill, state investigation of the incident is underway and penalties are forthcoming.
“This blatant disregard for safety protocols led to a preventable diesel spill that has impacted Gravesend Bay,” said DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos. “While DEC is directing the responsible parties to undertake full and immediate cleanup, the state is thoroughly investigating this incident and will ensure these polluters are held accountable.”
DEC’s release (which was the first sent out by the agency about the spill) further claimed that the incident was in fact reported to the agency, as well as USCG, by the barge operator at approximately 4 a.m. on Thursday, March 30 and that, under New York State law, the party responsible for a petroleum spill must report it to DEC within two hours of discovery. From there, the agency’s Spills Response Unit immediately responded to the report and “quickly oversaw work to secure absorbent booms offshore of the facility to capture the released fuel and mitigate impacts to Gravesend Bay.”
DEC, the USCG, the EPA, the Fire Department of the City of New York, and the facility operator’s environmental contractor (Miller Environmental) are all assisting, officials said, with the initial cleanup, which has been contained within the boundaries of the facility. Furthermore, a remediation work plan will be developed by the facility operator and submitted to DEC and the USCG for approval.
“DECs first priority is to rapidly respond to all spills reported throughout the state to determine the nature and extent of the spill and ensure the polluters are held accountable to protect public health and the environment, and to advance an immediate cleanup,” a rep for the agency added in an e-mail to this paper. “While state environmental conservation law does not require notification for fuel spills of this nature, following the March 30 spill at Bayside Oil Terminal, DEC went above the requirement and notified various local elected officials multiple times to inform them of the state’s response and oversight of the incident. Frequent updates to lawmakers will continue throughout the cleanup and ongoing investigation. “
“This was a localized incident and within U.S. Coast Guard jurisdiction,” added a representative for the EPA. “As such, the EPA did not perform notifications for this response. NYS DEC and the USCG were the lead agencies. EPA’s role in this spill was to provide technical assistance in support of the USCG and NYSDEC. Public notifications of oil spills are typically made by the lead response agencies within their response jurisdiction. In this case, the lead response agencies were the U.S. Coast Guard – Sector NY, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. The EPA’s actions for this response were conducted in accordance with the EPA’s emergency response procedures.”
Also on hand for the presser were representatives of the Coney Island Beautification Project, Coney Island History Project and Community Board 13, plus parents, educators and stakeholders. Public Advocate Letitia James was also in attendance.
This story has been updated to include comments from both the EPA and Bayside Fuel.