Oil Refining and Greenpoint

Greenpoint was not only the first place large scale oil refining was done in the United States, but for decades no place on earth refined more oil than Greenpoint. Charles Pratt became a millionaire and the richest man in Brooklyn by setting up the Astral Oil works on the banks of Bushwick inlet in 1867. His refinery was the nation’s first modern refinery and wsa capable of producing tens of thousands of gallons of kerosene and other oils. The site held more than two dozen huge oil tanks and today Bayside fuel still has several large oil storage tanks there.

When the oil fields of Pennsylvania began to develop right before the Civil War Pratt saw the chance to earn a fortune there. Experimenting in refining oil, Pratt succeeded in producing what he called “Pratt’s Astral Oil,” probably the best kerosene on the market. Taking great pride in the high quality of his oil, he was greatly pleased when he told that the Russian convent on Mount Tabor was lighted with Pratt’s Astral Oil. He said that he meant to see that the stamp ” Pratt ” should be as good as the stamp of the mint.

He located his Astral Refinery on the Southwest Edge of Greenpoint, becoming America’s first modern oil refinery. Later, John D. Rockefeller forced Pratt to sell Astral Oil and Pratt joined Standard oil’s Board of Directors, becoming a multi-millionaire. Other refiners soon followed Pratt to Greenpoint with more than 50 of them lining the East River from Williamsburg to Greenpoint making the industry a competitor to the declining ship building industry that developed in the area.

Until refining came to Greenpoint its creeks were clean enough to fish and swim in, but refining quickly killed all the life in the creeks and made Newtown Creek amongst the most polluted waterways in the world.

During the industrial boom of the 1890s, local activists calling themselves the Fifteenth Ward Smelling Committee paddled up the creek seeking the polluters responsible for the foul stenches wafting from the once-pristine waterway. They had plenty to choose from: glue-makers and fertilizer processors produced plenty of noxious by-product. But the oil refineries were the worst offenders: Workers transferring oil and solvents from one part of the plant to another inevitably spilled; storage tanks leaked; and the process of distilling oil to make kerosene, paraffin wax, naphtha, gasoline, and fuel oil left all sorts of junk. “If roughly 5 percent of the initial crude petroleum consumed by the refineries ended up as coke residue, gas, or other loss each of New York’s petroleum districts would have produced the equivalent of 300,000 gallons of waste material each week during the 1880s.” What couldn’t be resold or burned up was simply dumped on the ground or into the water. There were more than 50 refineries in Greenpoint with more refining on the Queens side of Newtown Creek in 1870, and by 1892, Standard Oil owned most of them.

At the time, Newtown Creek was one of the busiest waterways in the country, and the most hazardous: Fires routinely broke out at the refineries, sometimes burning down entire factories and leaving the chemical remains to soak into the soil. In 1919, twenty acres of the Standard Oil refinery, storing 110 million gallons of oil, went up in smoke. The oil that didn’t burn sunk into the ground. Given the natural order of things, one would expect this oil eventually to drain into the creek and escape into the ocean—but it didn’t. Instead, it slowly moved away from the creek and backed up into Brooklyn. That’s because until about 60 years ago, Brooklyn relied on its own wells for drinking water. And the borough pumped so much of its groundwater to the surface that it reversed the natural slope of its underground water table, tilting it away from the creek and toward the Brooklyn Navy Yard, near where the municipal water pumps were diligently sucking. And so the oil, slinking above the water table, flowed with it, filling the interstitial spaces where the groundwater had once been. By the forties, the aquifer was so depleted that seawater had begun to infiltrate it, making it useless. So in 1949 Brooklyn switched to water piped down from the Catskills.

One year later, on October 5, a vast underground explosion centered at Huron Street and Manhattan Avenue sent 25 manhole covers shooting into the Greenpoint sky, where they reached elevations as high as three stories. This was the first clue that anything was amiss. An investigation revealed that gasoline was leaking into the neighborhood’s sewer system, but at the time no one thought to measure the amount of manhole propellant that had not ignited. Meanwhile, with the municipal water pumps in mothballs, Brooklyn’s aquifer slowly started filling back up. By the late seventies, the water table had rebounded to its natural level. And the oil that floated on top of it reversed its flow. It now moved toward what was once again the lowest point: Newtown Creek.

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