It is public knowledge that the Gowanus Canal is polluted. Many are
coming to accept that worse the canal is toxic to the extent that it is
dangerous for human beings to come into physical contact with.
Unfortunately, pollution is not stationary, it moves and migrates with
shifting earth, water and other geological flows.  This means that not
only the canal, but the land adjacent to it is also polluted and
potentially toxic.  From the canal edge to the basements of the
brownstones in the canal underground flood plain.


First meeting of the EPA’s Gowanus CAG:

The EPA’s Gowanus CAG got off to a good start on the evening of Tuesday
October 26th. Very good reports, photos and video of the event are
available on the Pardon Me for Asking blogspot.

Given GbD’s mission and to provide a forum for planning and design
information about the Canal, rather than repeating what has been so well
documented by others we think GbD’s role should be to offer analysis of
what we’re all learning at the CAG meetings.

With regard to the first CAG meeting, Walter Mugdan was straight forward
in his description of what has happened to date and what is going to
happen with the process. The short version is that the EPA’s Gowanus
team is ahead of schedule. They’ve pushed very hard, and a preliminary
assessment will be ready in January. Given what they know now, Walter
speculated that the canal will be dredged and that the process will
begin in three years inclusive of the time needed to develop the actual
clean-up plan; and that the physical cleanup will be completed in
approximately 2020 or 2022. That’s all good news, and is consistent with
what Walter has described since the EPA first publicly announced they
were considering the Gowanus for inclusion on the National Priorities

Now for the not so good news. The EPA is only responsible for cleaning
up of the canal itself. Specifically, the mud on the bottom of the canal
(and the sides, and the bulkheads, etc.). This mud is highly toxic,
highly corrosive and in some areas contains 4.5% coal tar. Cleaning it
up - getting it out of our community - is clearly a priority.

Unfortunately, the EPA Superfund process is not responsible for cleaning
the water unless it’s a public health hazard. The (Federal) EPA through
the 1972 Clean Water Act (CWA) enforces water quality standards
throughout the country, and to maintain those standards occasionally
sues local city agencies such as the New York City Department of
Environmental Protection. The City under the direction of the State
Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) is mandated with
maintaining the Canal water quality and as a result the Gowanus
Facilities Upgrade project
is already underway. The City and State have
pledged $175 million to enlarge the tunnel and to repair and update the
flushing station. The NYCDEP has also issued $2.6 million in grants for
innovative “Green Infrastructure” projects, including funding to the
Gowanus Canal Conservancy for construction of storm water retention
gardens along the Canal. While we believe the City is (finally) making
its best effort to clean the Canal water, Walter acknowledged that the
ultimate goals of the CWA - making public waterways fishable and
swimmable - is not achievable in our lifetimes given that the entire
lower Hudson Bay and all of its estuaries are polluted.

While we would all like to experience a swimmable and fishable Gowanus,
a water quality level that is non-toxic and supportive of marine life is
a more realistic and immediate goal. This would bring the Gowanus on par
with the current state of the lower Hudson and East Rivers, especially
once the Flushing Tunnel connection to the East River’s Buttermilk
Channel is upgraded, effectively pumping cleaner water into the Canal.

The far more concerning aspect of Walter’s presentation is that the EPA
will not be responsible for the clean up of the uplands, though it has
the legal tools to declare them part of the Superfund site. Upland
cleanup is currently the responsibility of local developers, regulated
by the City laws, and under the guidance of the NYSDEC. Cleaning up the
uplands is currently determined by State standards adjusted to the
proposed use for the property. Our concern is that the source of the
worst pollutants in the Canal is in fact the uplands since that’s where
coal tar and other pollutants are seeping from.

This map above is based on what we feel is relevant information and what
was presented at the meeting, and details three locations of prior gas
plant sites that are heavily polluted with numerous toxins including
coal tar. The tar migrates deep underground through buried marsh soils
and is dispersed by tidally influenced streams and rain water seepage.
Until the uplands are remediated toxic pollutants, including coal tar,
will continue to seep into the canal.

We have to ask - is this “Canal only” Superfund remediation the best
scenario for cleaning up the Canal area? Is it the best plan, or a
compromise between the EPA, the City and developers? Are the City and
developers the best parties to achieve a complete and thorough
remediation of the Canal uplands after the City seriously considers
residential development and playgrounds on polluted sites before the
remediation studies of those sites were complete (notably Toll Brothers
project which was actually approved!). Walter acknowledged that the EPA
could take over clean up of the uplands if necessary. This is something
that we as a community need to consider if cleanup “standards” for
individual sites continue to allow toxins to migrate into the Canal.

Additionally, in reviewing the EPA map of the canal cleanup we note that
several areas where the Canal has been illegally filled in are not
currently set to be dredged and remediated. We need to press the EPA to
expand their cleanup areas to include these portions of the Canal basin,
notably the eastern leg under the Third Avenue bridges.

By Anthony Deen (GbD co-founder) and Eymund Diegel At Large members
Gowanus EPA CAG

A map of topics discussed at the October 27, 2010 EPA Gowanus Community
Advisory Group meeting:

Click on the map below to download Eymund Diegel's map summarizing the
potential extent of pollution in the 178 acre Gowanus estuary:

GbD statement to the US Environmental Protection Agency:
Superfund docket number: EPA - H Q - S F U N D - 2 0 0 9 - 0 0 6 3

Cleaning up the Gowanus Canal

Since the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on April 8,
2008 that it was nominating the Gowanus Canal for listing on the Federal
Superfund National Priorities List (NPL), there has been an active
community dialogue regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the
competing clean up plans proposed by the EPA and New York City. Although
neither plan is perfect, it is worth focusing on the key elements of
each plan to help better evaluate their potential effectiveness. The EPA
Superfund program exists to identify sites damaged by hazardous
substances, assess the treatability of site contamination, develop
appropriate clean-up technologies, and implement site remediation.
Opponents of the Superfund process have criticized the lengthy clean up
process, the litigation against yet-to-be-identified Potentially
Responsible Parties (PRPs), and the stigmatization of a Superfund site
in our neighborhood.

New York City has proposed an alternative plan which it believes will
accelerate the clean up process by removing the litigious aspect of
Superfund and allowing development to move forward. Like the Superfund
process, this plan is also supervised by the EPA. The City’s strategy is
comprised of four parts: Voluntary support by PRPs to clean up their
contaminated sites, dredging of the upper 250 yards of the waterway,
voluntary commitments from developers and PRPs to clean upland sites
utilizing strategies from the PlaNYC brownfields remediation program,
and dredging of the canal by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers (USACE).
The USACE’s program relies on federal WRDA (Water Resource Development
Act) funding and includes permanent capping of the canal to prevent
remaining contaminants from re-entering the waterway.

In tandem with its remediation efforts, the City is currently
considering rezoning the Gowanus neighborhood; in fact, two developers
have already received zoning variances for their projects. Each of these
projects could start immediately without a comprehensive master plan and
completed Environmental Impact Statement. With 600,000 SF of residential
space proposed at the 2nd Street site alone, there has been very little
consideration of the project’s impact on the surrounding infrastructure,
transportation systems, and school systems. Both development proposals
include storm water management systems for the respective properties,
but it is unclear how these systems will mesh with an overall
environmental strategy. The 2nd Street site also includes 268 above
ground parking spaces. There are significant cost savings to the
developers if below ground parking is not provided; less soil will be
disturbed thus reducing the amount of remediation required. Any
remediation is a good thing, but the developers will only remediate what
they have to and leave large contaminated areas intact. It is not clear
how they will control the continual migration of toxic plumes (the
subsurface network of effluents, such as petroleum-related compounds)
across site and canal boundaries, but if the clean up is controlled by
the depth of the building structures, the canal bottom will still be
directly adjacent to contaminated soil below the remediation zone.

As noted above, the USACE plan is contingent on WRDA funding in order to
pay for the canal’s dredging. Aside from a feasibility study that
includes the Hudson-Raritan Estuary, Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez and
Mark Lulka, USACE's Gowanus Canal project manager, have confirmed that
the canal has not been authorized for any congressional funding. In
order for federal funds to be made available for the canal’s clean up, a
new authorization bill will have to be passed by Congress and funds
allocated for the clean up. This is unlikely to happen in the near
future since WRDA already has a backlog of over 1,000 authorized
projects with an estimated cost of $61 billion waiting for the necessary

In the late 1970s, funding was set aside by NYC for the reactivation of
the Gowanus Flushing Tunnel and pump station. The New York City
Department of Environmental Protection's original 1982 plans showed the
flushing pump scheduled for activation in 1988. Due to bureaucratic
delays, the pump did not come on line until early 1999, over twenty
years after the funding was approved. Although we support any efforts
that can be made to expedite the clean up process and agree that housing
is a critical need in our growing city, we are concerned that the City
has approved development proposals without a completed master plan; has
not confirmed the voluntary participation of other PRPs; and has not
secured WRDA funding for the canal dredging. In light of its track
record at the pumping station, its inability to complete projects in a
timely manner and rely on voluntary participation in the midst of an
economic crisis is alarming.

One of the inevitable consequences of nominating the canal on the NPL is
the immediate stigmatization of the area as a federally-mandated toxic
site. This could make it difficult for developers to market their new
housing units, get financing, and position their projects as
environmentally-responsible, particularly after the first developments
are occupied while several other properties are being remediated and the
canal is being dredged. As part of its budget, Superfund includes a
redevelopment program to help communities return hazardous sites to a
productive use. One of the mandates of this program is to support
sustainable development as one of the future uses of a site before a
cleanup remedy is implemented. With the growing trend towards
sustainable urban plans and the desire to restore an environmental
system scarred by long term neglect, the Superfund process offers a
unique opportunity to not only plan a community before implementation,
but to integrate it into the City’s own PlaNYC.

As witnessed at Atlantic Yards, development proposals and their positive
contributions are paper thin until the projects are actually built. We
support inclusion of the Gowanus Canal on Superfund’s NPL since we
believe it is the best option for our community to ensure a
comprehensive, experienced, and thorough clean up of the Canal. While
not without its flaws - for example, it fails to address the combined
sewer overflows (CSOs) that have contributed to the waterway’s pollution
- it offers the most responsible solution that can be implemented by an
agency with the necessary experience.

Our community has lived with a polluted canal for 150 years and should
not be shackled by the time constraints imposed by the City’s desire to
build more housing. With an active community and a city government that
can look beyond short-term development interests, the Gowanus Canal can
be intelligently restored and reintegrated into the urban fabric.

Respectfully submitted,
Gowanus by Design