New York going after oil companies

Attorney General Andrew Cuomo seeks to force cleanup of New York City oil spill which released over 17 million gallons - more than Exxon Valdez.

NEW YORK ( -- New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced Thursday that he intends to file a lawsuit against ExxonMobil and 4 other companies that will require them to clean up Newtown Creek, which has been polluted by a 17 million gallon oil spill among other contaminates, according to Cuomo's office.

Cuomo will send ExxonMobil (Charts), BP (Charts), Chevron (Charts), Keyspan (Charts) and Phelps Dodge (Charts) notices of intent to sue. They are to be charged with "imminent and substantial endangerment to health and the environment" in Newton Creek and parts of the nearby shoreline, under the federal Resource Conversation and Recovery Act.

In addition, the attorney general's office accused ExxonMobil and Chevron of violating the federal Clean Water Act for continued discharge of pollutant substances into Newtown Creek without a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency.

ExxonMobil spokesman Barry Wood said of the intent to file suit notice: "We're aware of their press release but we have not seen or received any suit papers."

Cuomo said the suit reflected how serious the environmental situation is.

"This is one of the worst environmental disasters in the nation, larger than the Exxon Valdez and slower in the cleanup. ExxonMobil must and will be held accountable," said Cuomo.

Newtown Creek is a 3.5-mile-long waterway separating Queens and Brooklyn that flows into New York City's East River. ExxonMobil's nearby refinery and storage operation cause oil to seep into the ground, contaminating the soil.

The Coast Guard discovered oil leaking into Newtown Creek in 1978 and a study commissioned by the Coast Guard a year later found the spill to be approximately 17 million gallons in size, which is 7 million gallons more than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989.

"ExxonMobil has proven itself far less than a model corporate citizen, placing its greed for windfall profits over public safety and the well-being of the environment," said Cuomo.

Other oil companies, including BP and Chevron, operated storage facilities along the creek that released oil into the ground. Phelps Dodge operated a copper smelting plant that contributed to the creek's pollution, leaving pollutants including lead and mercury in the soil.

Predecessors to Keyspan operated gas facilities along the creek that contaminated the water and soil.

Oil and other petroleum products have been refined and held at locations in the Greenpoint area since the 1850s by various companies, including those at the center of the attorney general's charges.

Cuomo's suit will seek scientific testing to determine the full scope of the contamination, and increased efforts to clean up the underground oil and contaminated groundwater.

Under federal law, the companies have 90 days to obey the rules in order to avoid a lawsuit.

Riverkeeper, a non-profit environmental law firm dedicated to protecting the Hudson River, filed a similar lawsuit against ExxonMobil in 2004 on behalf of Greenpoint residents.

That suit, which is pending, seeks penalties payable to the federal government that could amount to $32,000 each day the companies did not clean up the spill, going back five years - as much as the statute of limitations permits, according to Riverkeeper spokesman Basil Seggos.

He said the EPA study commissioned last year by local government officials, the first review of the oil spill since 1979, is set to be released in July of this year.

CNN's Katy Byron contributed to this report.

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