Pace Interns Prevail in Eight-Year-Long Battle with Big Oil

Landmark settlement announced with ExxonMobil Corp. for oil spill in Greenpoint, Brooklyn

WHITE PLAINS, NY, November 18, 2010 — The Hudson Riverkeeper, represented by Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic legal interns, announced a landmark settlement this week of federal litigation against ExxonMobil Corp. for the oil contamination of Greenpoint, Brooklyn and nearby Newtown Creek.

The settlement, announced Wednesday by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and Riverkeeper, requires ExxonMobil to conduct a comprehensive cleanup of its oil and related contamination at its Greenpoint facility and in the surrounding community.

ExxonMobil also agreed to pay $25 million for penalties, costs, and to improve the local environment. It will establish a $19.5 million “Environmental Benefit Project” fund to benefit the Greenpoint community. According to the New York Times, this represents the largest single payment for such a purpose in New York State history.

Daniel Estrin, supervising attorney at the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic and an adjunct professor of law at Pace Law School, said Thursday, “I think that our victory should be an inspiration to people all over—to anyone in any community around the country that feels that they’ve been forgotten, or that they can’t take on polluters or the government where they violate the law.”

According to Estrin, staff and law students at the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic have been working on this effort since 2002, when Riverkeeper first brought to their attention the tens of millions of gallons of petroleum polluting the Greenpoint area.

“We have not heard anything definitive about how 17 to 30 million gallons of petroleum wound up in the ground, but I tend to believe that it’s the result of decades and decades of basically sloppy practices at several refineries that line the creek dating back probably to the 1800s,” Estrin said.

The Clinic filed its complaint in 2004 following an extensive investigation. Cuomo took office in January 2007, and filed a lawsuit against ExxonMobil shortly thereafter, Estrin said.

“Through this campaign, we’ve achieved unbelievable results.  By shining a spotlight on the neglect of prior administrations, we convinced the current administration to join us in this fight, which ultimately resulted in both the National Priorities Listing and the settlement that was announced yesterday,” Estrin said.

The federal government recently added Newtown Creek to the National Priorities List, naming it a “Superfund” site slated for a comprehensive cleanup.

Estrin added, “Our students have really done everything in the case from drafting discovery requests and motion papers to even arguing in federal court.” More than two dozen student interns have worked on this case since 2002, he said.

Estrin recalled an occasion in 2006 when a third-year law student, Eric Annes, argued against a motion from ExxonMobil that would have required other oil companies to be added to the lawsuit, and prevailed.

“To see one of our students go up against an experienced litigation partner from a big firm and come out on top is especially rewarding,” Estrin said.

Elizabeth Bennett, a third-year law student who is interning at the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic this semester, helped with the settlement negotiations.

“Being at the Environmental Litigation Clinic has been really great. It’s taught me a lot about litigating and the process of a lawsuit,” Bennett said.

She said she lives in Brooklyn near the affected community, so she feels personally connected to the outcome.

“I’m really happy for the community members. It’s been really great getting to know them. They really deserve this,” Bennett said.

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