Fort La Presentation Association holds out hope that ExxonMobil will pay up
By Sean Ewart
PUBLISHED: SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 30, 2013 AT 5:00 AM
The Fort La Presentation Association is pressing on in its quest to be compensated by oil giant ExxonMobil for damages resulting from petroleum contamination on its property at Lighthouse Point.
The association was left out of an $8 million settlement between the oil company and the state Comptroller’s Office Oil Spill Fund announced earlier this week by state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman. The settlement helps the state recoup costs associated with cleaning up contamination at the Lighthouse Point property, which was an oil storage facility run by ExxonMobil and its predecessors for roughly 100 years until 1984.
Fort La Presentation Association President Barbara J. O’Keefe said Wednesday the association initially discovered the contamination at Lighthouse Point in 2001, which led to a cleanup of the site by the state Department of Environment Conservation in 2006 and 2007.
DEC paid for the cleanup through the state Oil Spill Fund, and the Comptroller’s Office, which controls the fund, sought reimbursement from ExxonMobil. In total the state paid just over $9 million to clean up the site, but the cleanup also included debris from other occupants of the site not associated with ExxonMobil.
Elizabeth Debold, spokesperson for Mr. Schneiderman, said the final settlement was a compromise with ExxonMobil that represented the best deal for the state.
"Our job is to replenish the Oil Spill Fund," she said.
Ms. Debold said she could not comment on the association’s efforts to receive compensation.
Meave M. Tooher of Tooher & Barone LLC, Albany, the fort association’s attorney, said the association recognizes that the attorney general is not the association’s lawyer and said ExxonMobil refused to reach a joint settlement. The fort association has filed a claim with the comptroller’s office seeking damages for the setbacks it experienced while waiting for the property to be cleaned up.
The fort association has been working for decades to construct a replica of the fort on the site.
Ms. Tooher said she hopes now that the settlement with the state has been reached, Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli will award damages to the fort association.
"He should say that ExxonMobil is responsible for these damages," Ms. Tooher said.
Mark Johnson, spokesperson for the comptroller, said there is no time frame for a resolution to the fort association’s claim.
"The fort’s claim for damages alleged to be incurred as a result of the spill was filed with the Office of the State Comptroller, Oil Spill Fund, and is pending," Mr. Johnson said in an emailed message.
"ExxonMobil should consider the communities they impact," Ms. Tooher said, adding that a settlement for a "couple million dollars" would enable the association to begin developing the land.
Mrs. O’Keefe said the fort association needs roughly $15 million to construct a walking trail, museum, native village and full-sized replica of the 1749 fort built on the point by French Sulpician priest Abbe Francois Picquet. Association members hope it will serve as a tourist attraction for the city.
"It’s such a beautiful piece of property," Mrs. O’Keefe said. "We want people to be able to enjoy it and use it."
ExxonMobil declined to comment about the fort association’s claim or the company’s role in keeping the association out of the $8 million settlement with the attorney general.
In 2006 the fort association was told by then-Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi that a $6 million settlement had been reached with ExxonMobil that included $2.25 million for the fort group.
But Mrs. O’Keefe said the announcement by Mr. Hevesi was "premature" as the settlement had not been agreed upon by then-Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo.
Gov. Cuomo’s office did not return a call for comment.
The $8 million settlement reached on Nov. 14 was the result of seven years of negotiation with ExxonMobil.
"From the fort’s perspective we thought (the 2006 agreement) was a fair and equitable way to handle things," Ms. Tooher said, adding that the settlement would have enabled the fort association to move forward with its plans.
In 2006, the fort was given $100,000 from ExxonMobil to help cover technical and legal fees associated with the contamination’s discovery.
The fort association hasn’t received further compensation, however, and for the last five years has had no contact with neither ExxonMobil nor the attorney general’s office regarding a settlement, Ms. Tooher said.