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, one two block development site along Bond Street has already been rezoned. This project could start immediately without a comprehensive master plan and completed Environmental Impact Statement. With 600,000 SF of proposed residential space, there has been very little consideration of the project’s impact on the surrounding infrastructure, transportation systems, and school systems. The development proposal includes a storm water management system, but it is unclear how it will mesh with an overall environmental strategy. There also 268 above grade 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 developers are only required to remediate within the confines of their property. 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 funding.

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 remediated and the canal is 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.