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At 12:05 p.m. on Oct. 5, 1950, a huge explosion rocked Greenpoint, Brooklyn. As shards of concrete and specks of tar flew like shrapnel, a 10-foot-wide hole was ripped out of the pavement, 25 heavy manhole covers shot into the sky, windows in over 500 buildings were shattered and residents stumbled about in an ear-ringing daze. There were a few minor injuries but, remarkably, no one was killed. After examining the crater and interviewing residents, city investigators concluded that the explosion had been caused by petroleum and other industrial pollutants that had leaked from storage bunkers or deliberately been poured into the neighborhood’s soil and water, had pooled underground and spontaneously combusted. The inspectors issued a report on the blast, noting that chemicals had been leaking from industrial sites in Greenpoint since the 19th century. Then they moved on to other things. Nothing was done to clean up the toxins.

The smell of hydrocarbons wafted through the neighborhood; clothes hung out to dry became stained; people and their pets suffered mysterious ailments. Yet for decades no one seemed to notice -- or, at least, the residents of Greenpoint, who were mostly working-class immigrants from insular Polish, Italian, Irish and Hispanic communities, never complained.

As the petroleum and other chemicals continued to seep, they tainted much of the soil and groundwater in Greenpoint undetected. Much more obvious was the rainbow-hued oil slick that floated down Newtown Creek, a 3.8-mile inlet of the East River that runs through the neighborhood and defines the Brooklyn/Queens border: it was slowly but plainly transformed into a winding, ink-black question mark in the heart of New York City.

By 2010, the oil spill beneath Brooklyn was estimated to contain at least 17 million to 30 million gallons of hydrocarbons and other toxic compounds, in pockets up to 25 feet deep, though the exact amount remains unknown. At the low end, this estimate represents 6 million more gallons of oil than the 10.8 million gallons of crude spilled by the Exxon Valdez in 1989, and 9 million more gallons than the oil spills that coated New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Until April 2010 -- when the drill rig Deepwater Horizon exploded, spewing 185 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico -- the Newtown Creek oil spill was the largest in U.S. history.


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