Impact, extent of East River oil spill unclear

The East River oil spill cleanup continues. Now crews are rushing to cover up parts of the Con Edison substation where it originated so that heavy rain this weekend doesn't cause more oil to leach into the river.

Con Edison said about 30,000 gallons of insulating oil leaked after a transformer at a substation John Street failed. Most of it went into the soil on the property, which is now being excavated, and then some seeped into the river. We still don't know how much, but so far 560 gallons have been recovered from the water.

"If you have a vessel that holds that much oil you should have some kind of spill containment around it," said Patrol Boat Captain John Lipscomb, the vice president of advocacy for the watchdog group Riverkeeper. "It certainly shouldn't be over porous ground."

He added that recovering all the oil that leaked into the river will likely be impossible. He said that once the oil gets outside the booms it is carried away by the strong currents.

Con Edison's vice president of environment, health, and safety apologized.

"We deeply regret this happened and we are doing everything possible to make sure we conduct the cleanup as safely, thoroughly and quickly as possible," Andrea Schmitz said in a statement. "We are grateful to the U.S. Coast Guard, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, New York City Emergency Management, and all the other agencies for their assistance, and we appreciate the patience of boaters and the community."

The oil is a light mineral oil, which Con Ed acknowledged can impact fish or wildlife in heavy concentrations. The utility said oil samples collected contained low levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which pose minimal hazard to the public.

Riverkeeper's Lipscomb said that this oil spill is concerning, but should also be put into perspective.

"This spill is not good for the harbor but our own wastewater treatment system in New York City, which causes chronic releases, is a bigger problem for the harbor than this accident," he said.

Hundreds of people are working on the cleanup, which will continue indefinitely. Con Ed said it will begin removing and replacing the damaged transformer next week.