Environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. says city officials engaged in a two-year coverup of a major oil spill into the city's upstate water supply.

City officials have actively tried to conceal the contamination from both the regulatory agencies and the public, said Kennedy, chief prosecuting lawyer for Hudson Riverkeeper, a non-profit environmental group.

This is part of an institutional culture at DEP ^the Department of Environmental Protection_ where the guiding maxim is "What they don't know won't hurt them,' Kennedy said.

He has asked Jeanne Fox, regional administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, to investigate whether a 722-gallon spill of heating oil into the Croton Aqueduct at Ardsley, Westchester, was cleaned up properly in 1996.

Robert Kennedy did raise a number of concerns, and we are, in fact, in discussions with the city to determine which, if any, are true, and if so, what needs to be done about it, said Fox's spokeswoman, Mary Mears.

Kennedy said he contacted Fox after DEP workers told him they noticed traces of the 2-year-old spill in part of the aqueduct on Sept. 11, but agency higher-ups refused to act on the alarming findings.

DEP Commissioner Joel Miele's chief of staff, Charles Sturcken, admitted oil was found but said the amount was too small to pose a threat.

Kennedy said the finding of oil at the same site where it spilled in December 1996 suggests the oil has leaked into the water system over that period of time.

Sources said the city Department of Investigation launched a new probe of the alleged coverup days ago, after The Post began asking questions.

Sturcken vehemently denied there was ever any threat to the water supply. They are serious charges, which, if Mr. Kennedy has any information to corroborate, he should be speaking to the inspector general, he said.

Although Sturcken confirmed that workers found evidence of oil in the aqueduct earlier this month, he called it a trace amount that posed no danger.

He said it would be impossible for oil to seep through once the flow from the aqueduct is turned back on because the water pressure is so great.

But Kennedy noted that the portion of the aqueduct in which the spill occurred is not pressurized.

Heating oil contains benzine, toluene and xylene, chemicals believed to be cancer-causing in minute amounts.

DEP employees opened a manhole south of Ardsley and upstream of the Jerome Park reservoir, and the fumes coming out made the aqueduct smell like they were in a gas station, Kennedy said.

The aqueduct feeds into the Jerome Park reservoir, providing drinking water for the South Bronx, Harlem, the Lower East Side, Hell's Kitchen and the Upper East Side.

NY Post - September 29, 1998