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Washington Square Village Residents Brace for NYU's Cleanup of Heating Oil Spill

By DNAinfo Staff on December 14, 2010 11:21am

By Jill Colvin

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

GREENWICH VILLAGE — Washington Square Village residents are bracing for a massive cleanup of an underground oil spill, which they've dubbed "BP in our own Backyard," that's nearly three times larger than originally believed.

Oil was discovered leaking from a 20,000 gallon underground oil tank serving 3 Washington Square Village on the day after Christmas last year. Reports at the time said that roughly 6,000 gallons of No. 6 heating oil had escaped, prompting an emergency clean-up effort.

But the spill was much larger, with 16,000 gallons of oil escaping into the soil, according to a Langan Engineering and Environmental Services report obtained by DNAinfo. The company was commissioned by New York University, which owns the property, to survey the spill.

The report found that, while the ground water had been spared, 3,200 square feet of soil had been "grossly contaminated" by the spill.

No. 6 fuel oil is among the dirtiest kinds of fuel oils. It is listed as a possible carcinogen, and its vapors are known to cause dizziness, drowsiness, and eye and skin irritation if breathed in, according to a report by Hess, the energy company. The city's Department of Environmental Protection is considering banning the use of No. 6 oil to heat NYC apartment buildings by 2015.

NYU spokesman James Devitt, who confirmed the amount of oil now believed to have leaked into the soil, said that approximately 4,000 gallons have been recovered so far. That leaves an estimated 12,000 gallons still in the ground after a year.

NYU is now set to begin a massive three-month clean-up effort to finish the job, which will include extensive excavations, the removal of the oil tank, and the replacement of contaminated soil with new fill, according to plans.

But residents who have long worried of the health and environmental impact of the spill, calling it the "BP in our own backyard," are raising red flags.

"We're very concerned," said Barbara Backer, a long-time resident and member of the Washington Square Village Tenants Association's Environment Committee, whose balcony overlooks the spill site.

She said residents are worried about gas emissions and contaminated dust as well as potential noise and disruption caused by the cleanup efforts.

"It's a very public health problem," Backer said.

Devitt acknowledged that removing an oil tank is "a significant undertaking and will cause some temporary disruptions." But, he said the university is making every effort to minimize disruptions.

The leaky oil tank has been emptied, cleaned and decommissioned, as have the other three tanks that served the Village, he said.

"There is no danger to residents," he said, noting that the grade of fuel oil spilled is not defined as a hazardous substance in New York State and that air in the area has consistently tested clean.

He said the university responded "immediately" to the leak, but that cleanup plans like the one prepared by the university’s contractors have to be approved by the New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation. The plan was approved this fall semester, he said, after which the school put out a bid.

Work is expected to begin in January.

Despite NYU's assurances, some residents aren't convinced.

"How are they going to protect us?" asked Judy Magida, a member of the Tenants Association who has lived in the complex for 40 years. She said she was also frustrated by how little information NYU had shared with residents.

NYU's Devitt said staff have spoken before Community Board 2's Environmental, Public Safety and Public Health Committee twice to provide information. This week, they will be returning once again to share their "Oil Spill Remediation Plan" with the committee and the Tenants' Association.

The meeting is scheduled for 6:45 p.m. Wed. at NYU's Silver Building.

Ellen Peterson-Lewis, who sits on the committee, said she hoped the meeting would help to answer residents' remaining questions about what will be happening in the coming months.

"The issue is not finger-pointing," she said. "What's important is to remediate this catastrophic oil spill so it does not compromise the health and safety of the residents of the complex as well as the community as a whole."

Judy Magida, a fellow tnenats association members who has livedion the building for 40 years, said she was worried about disruptions to the buolding's foundartions during the dig/