A Brooklyn company quietly spilled thousands of gallons of heating oil into Gravesend Bay, BKLYNER has learned.
The 27,000 gallon spill at Bayside Fuel Depot began before sunrise on Thursday, March 30, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYC DEC) official Rodney Rivera confirmed after we obtained photographs and video of the spill’s aftermath and extensive cleanup.
Within hours of the report, the response team, which includes the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the US Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY), rushed to contain the spill, shroud the soil in plastic, and vacuum up oiled water, said Rivera. They are not, however, required to make a public announcement.
And by late Friday afternoon, while most New Yorkers were driven inside by the whipping rain and winds, workers in hazmat suits filed to and from the shore at the Bayside Depot, vacuuming oiled residue into trucks from a private waste removal contractor specializing in oil spills.
The Bayside Fuel Oil Depot terminal, at 1776 Shore Parkway in Gravesend, is a major hub for trucks and barges filling up on heating oil, once recorded at a rate of 300 million gallons per year. Initial Coast Guard reports peg the spill to an “operator error” during a transfer process, which the DEC referred to as “tank overflow” (the full cause is still under investigation).
This doesn’t surprise some experts, who say that majority of spills are due to human error, said Frank Csulak at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Association (NOAA).
This aerial video footage shows the site and adjacent stretch of Gravesend Bay on Saturday afternoon, three days after the spill:
“I heard that it was a total disaster,” said an industry source that spoke on the condition of anonymity, “with thousands of gallons of diesel fuel pouring into the bay.”
“It’s a moderate spill,” countered Csulak, who has been working on oil spills with the Coast Guard, EPA, and State agencies for more than 38 years.
But the initial numbers are unreliable anyway, said multiple experts.
“The first numbers are just a guess, based on scooping up oiled water or dirt but before calculating the percentages,” said Sean Anderson, Professor of Environmental Science and Resource Management at California State University Channel Islands.
Clearly, when it comes to environmental disasters, it can be hard to see the full impacts from a snapshot. So we reached out to a few experts to help us understand what this could mean for Brooklyn residents.
What you’re seeing
When 27,000 gallons (current estimate) of diesel fuel #2 spilled from the Bayside Depot transfer site, between roughly 500 and 1500 of those gallons ended up in the Gravesend Bay, said NOAA.
But the home heating oil is a light fuel that’s thin and evaporates fairly quickly, said Csulak, which is why it doesn’t appear as the iconic thick, black sludge often associated with oil spills. “Every oil behaves and weathers differently, some oils float some oils sink,” he said.
On Friday, the day after the spill, the heavy rain became a factor in the response, flooding more oil into the bay. But it also helped the thin diesel oil evaporate, and at this point, it has mostly dissipated, according to the DEC.
But in this video, you can see parts of the cleanup phase — like the Booms, or rope-looking structures floating in concentric rings on the water, designed to contain the spill and protect surrounding waters.
In the image above, you can see workers in hazmat suits, which is the protective gear required for responders to a crude or refined oil spill into coastal zones.
Since the number of gallons spilled is an initial estimate, other factors become more important for immediate containment. “It’s not so much a question of how much oil was spilled, but what it’s going to hit and when,” said Csulak. “There’s not much you can do to clean up because it’s so thin and spreads out once it hits the water, sheens aren’t recoverable.”
What it means
“All spills cause impact. But with diesel fuel, they’re short term. If it was a heavy oil that would pose a whole different set of concerns versus diesel fuel,” said Csulak.
For humans, Csulak said that they advise the general public to stay away from oiled areas, but there were “no known health concerns associated with these oil spills.”
But for the marine life, it’s a different story. Even though the area is predominantly industrial, there are sensitive ecological sites nearby. The State DEC is monitoring the area’s watershed marches, which had already been remediated from previous oil spills. (The agency is not yet sure if the areas were exposed to Thursday’s spill.)
While the immediate, acute dangers may be minimal, some experts say that chronic, small spills add up to a lasting residue on public health.
“It doesn’t have to be a catastrophic event — like the Exxon Valdez in 1989 or BP oil spill in 2010, to do long-term damage,” said Anderson. “But chronic, long-term exposure has real ecological and health impacts in waterways, soil, and air quality.”
A family-owned depot in Brooklyn
The Bayside Fuel Depot followed the legal guidelines for reporting a spill incident, according to records. According to state law, they are also responsible for covering the cleanup costs.
The company, a Bensonhurst family-owned heating oil distributor and wholesaler, has been operating its headquarters terminal at 1776 Shore Parkway since 1984. Their three-terminal operation, now run by Vincent Allegretti, began as a one-truck dealership along the Gowanus Canal in 1937 and grew voraciously into one of the city’s largest privately owned oil companies, with an annual revenue of $250 million dollars and with more than 270 employees, New York Times reports. (They sold their Gowanus Canal terminal in 2015, and the site is now is part of the state’s Brownfield Cleanup Program.)
We found at least three other spills for Bayside Depot’s Bay Parkway terminal and four at the Smith Street depot since 1978, affecting groundwater and surface water, and soil, according to DEP records. The site has monitoring oil wells, which indicates a history of spills on the property, said Csulak.
The Depot has grabbed headlines before, but not for an oil spill. In 1995, the company lost its long-time supply contract for city Housing Authority projects over allegations that it employed a reputed mobster as a salesman, reported the NY Daily News. But then-co-owner Alfred Allegretti denied the mob influence. “My brother Victor and I are the only family and the only bosses in this company,” Allegretti told the Daily.
When we first called the Bayside Fuel Depot on Friday afternoon, the person who answered the phone denied that there was a spill, simply saying “No, that didn’t happen” when we asked to confirm what was, at that point, only a rumor. When we called back, they were unavailable for comment.
How much is too much oil
“Our society is built around oil — from production to transportation — we have to expect some spillage,” said Anderson, estimating that hundreds to thousands of small spills happen in the U.S. every day.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Spill Hotline receives about 16,000 reports annually — but most are labeled small and are quickly cleaned up, according to the DEC website.
But how is small defined? The Coast Guard classifies many spills up to 100,000 gallons as minor or moderate, according to Wired. But in New York State, any spill at five gallons or above is important enough that it’s legally required to report.
But even small spills can add up to chronic, long-term — and sometimes less visible — damage. And while there are different requirements and protocols for reporting oil spills, which vary state by state, the smaller spills receive less media attention but add up to an important reality.
“It’s the frequency with which they occur, it’s not that any one of them is a big deal,” said John Amos, president of SkyTruth, a non-profit that monitors environmental threats via satellite imagery. “We’re asking eastern states to accept offshore drilling, which the public thinks is squeaky clean. No one understands the day to day degradation that has to occur to accommodate that drilling. That never makes it into the news.”
National disaster response, for better or for worse
In the wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA) established several federal regulatory systems to respond to natural disasters — which marked a drastic change in the industry, said Anderson.
On the positive side, increased regulation has led to a drop in the number of oil spills in the Atlantic coast region, said Csulak, citing the cause as education, stricter laws and regulations, better monitoring and surveillance, and better training.
But for researchers, the paramilitary command structure can lead to a lack of information — even when the companies and agencies have good intentions. “In my experience with oil spills, big or small, the command structure sets up an information block that can erode people’s trust in government…it can leave reporters, citizens, and scientists with a feeling of what are you hiding.”
The Oil Pollution Act also exposed an unsettling conflict of interest: It placed the onus of reporting and cleanup on the polluters themselves — the same party responsible for cleanup costs and potential fines.
By comparing public reports with their satellite images, Amos and his colleagues have found systematic underreporting of oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, he told BKLYNER. “Out at sea, it’s like ‘don’t ask don’t tell’. There’s no penalty at all for being wildly inaccurate. And there’s no one to check.”
The lead agency for handling oil spill reports, the Coast Guard’s National Response Center (NRC), is overworked, underfunded, and it isn’t authorized to investigate the polluter’s original report, said Amos.
But Amos and others we spoke with fear that environmental safeguards are tenuous, with a president who appointed a fierce EPA critic to head the agency and then attempted to strip its budget. Already, the tides are starting to shift. In January 2017, North Dakota House legislators passed a bill to cap oil spill reporting requirements at 420 gallons (10 barrels) or more.
“I don’t want to knock the NRC system too badly,” he said. “The alternative is no information at all.”
(With reporting from Hugo Smith.)