Con Ed, Coast Guard cleaning up East River oil spill

Cleanup is underway in the East River after a Con Edison transformer in Brooklyn ruptured, spilling an unknown amount of oil into the water. The transformer was holding up to 37,000 gallons of insulating oil. The oil didn't spill directly into the river, but rather into the ground at the substation, through which it seeped into the water.

"Most of that [oil] spilled out on to the substation grounds, some of that goes then down into the soil and from the soil some of that started to leak into the East River," Con Ed spokesperson Michael Clendenin said.

The oil spill happened Sunday at about 12:30 p.m. but most people weren't made aware of the spill until Tuesday.

Clendenin said crews responded immediately and have been working to remove and contain the oil. Yellow booms have been placed in the river around the substation, which is located on Gold Street, in an attempt to contain the spill.

"As of this morning we had collected about 500 gallons of oil from the river, that's not to say everything that was released into the water was collected," Clendenin said.

Environmental experts said the current of the river will likely make it impossible to collect all of the oil that leaked.

A U.S. Coast Guard spokesperson said the insulating oil, which is not petroleum but a translucent mineral oil, could irritate the eyes and should be washed off the skin of anyone who comes in contact with it. The Coast Guard is assisting in the cleanup.

"This is oil, certainly you don't want it in the river, but it's not life threatening to humans or anything," Clendenin said.

Despite that, many New Yorkers are alarmed.

"It's very scary whenever you hear about an oil spill," said John Opperman, executive director of the Earth Day Initiative. He said the spill underscores the need for government investment in environmental protection.

"We have certain safeguards in place, for instance with the EPA and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, with people advocating they be defunded and scaled down, it's really concerning when something like this happens because that's really what we rely on with situations like this," Opperman said.

Commercial boat traffic has been ordered to slow down because of the spill. That has caused delays on the newly relaunched East River branch of the New York City Ferry.

Con Ed said the cleanup will continue indefinitely until crews can be sure no additional oil will leak from the substation.