NYCkayaker Perspective of Gowanus Canal Superfund

UDEC Harlem River Ecology Center
Wed Jan 13 20:30:25 EST 2010


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Twice as Smelly
 Mayor wants to scrub Gowanus, avoiding Superfund listing
 Pollution on the surface of the Gowanus Canal, part of a series taken by
Riverkeeper during a June investigation.
Courtesy Riverkeeper

On October 9, from the banks of the Gowanus Canal, Mayor Michael Bloomberg
unveiled a new, $150 million
investment<>in the
waterway's infrastructure. Except that it was not exactly new. Seven
years prior, the mayor, then at the beginning of his first term, made a
similar visit and a similar announcement. Only that investment never

The 2002 cleanup was to bring the city in compliance with the Clean Water
Act, which was being violated because during heavy rains, the sewer system
would discharge raw sewage into the canal. By 2005, when the improvements
still had not been made, the state filed a consent order compelling the city
to come into compliance. But it was only this October that the mayor finally
returned to the canal, though now for an entirely different reason, and one
the new infrastructure would have little impact on: a proposal announced in
April by the EPA to make the canal—one of the most polluted waterways in the
city—into a Superfund site, a fate Bloomberg, with real estate interests in
mind, greatly feared.

"This is the beginning of a comprehensive cleanup that will be done much
faster than the years of fighting through the Superfund process," he

That said, the promised improvements to sewage overflow have nothing to do
with the toxic sediments in the canal that have caused the community so much
concern, and which finally forced the EPA to take action. Furthermore the
city's own proposal to clean up those sediments, which was also unveiled
last month, has been questioned by environmentalists, scientists, and even
the Army Corps of Engineers, the city's partner in the program.

Joshua Verleun, a staff attorney for the environmental group Riverkeeper,
noted that major wastewater treatment projects are always good news, "but to
lump it in with Superfund is misleading—they're two different things," he
said. "Both from a legal perspective and an advocacy perspective, Superfund
really is the best way to clean up the canal and it's what the people in the
community want and deserve."

The mayor was steadfast in maintaining that his plan had more money and
would be more efficient. "There is no Superfund, it's a misnomer," he said.
But according to the EPA, its Superfund remediation budget is in excess of
$1 billion every year. Region 2, which covers New York, New Jersey, Puerto
Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, receives between $80-$100 million per
year, and was closer to $250 million this year thanks to stimulus funding.

By comparison, the city's plan counts on the Army Corps of Engineers to tap
the Water Resource Development Act for funds to clean the canal, of which
there is only $50 million available each year for the entire country. The
cleanup of the canal is expected to cost between $250 million and $400
million, making the mayor's nine- to ten-year estimate seem exceedingly

Another potential problem is how the city's plan seeks to bring local
stakeholders to the table to pay for their portion of the cleanup. Unlike
Superfund, which uses detailed investigations to identify responsible
parties and compels them to pay for cleanup through legal means, the city's
program would be voluntary. The city is hoping those local businesses and
developers would help pay for the cleanup to avoid the supposed stigma of
Superfund listing. Many of the canal's neighbors believe it is too late for
that. "That's just bunk," said Craig Hammerman, district manager of local
Community Board 6. "How can you stigmatize a stigmatized area? The cleanup
will destigmatize it, though, and that's what we're after."

The mayor has claimed that the city process also has the advantage of being
faster than Superfund because it avoids litigation. But Walter Mugdan,
director of Superfund Programs for EPA Region 2, counters that of the more
than 1,000 Superfund sites to date, no more than one or two have involved
lengthy litigation. And when litigation is called for, it takes place after
the cleanup is already underway, thereby creating no delays to the process.

Meanwhile, involving the Army Corps, as the city plans, could actually slow
down the process by one or two years because the Corps would have to acquire
permits for work that the EPA can do as of right. "I think the thing that's
important with the EPA is the legal power, the legal authority, which the
Corps doesn't have," said Mark Lulka, the Army Corps' project manager on
Gowanus restoration.

Another issue that could slow the cleanup—and add to its complexity—is that
it would be a multiagency operation, between the city, state, EPA, and Army
Corps. "Superfund is a known quantity," Lulka said. "Do I think we can do
the work? Yes. But it's never been done before."

David Von Spreckelsen, senior vice president at Toll Brothers City Living,
has joined the mayor in opposition to Superfund listing. As head of the
Clean Gowanus Now! Coalition, Von Spreckelsen argues it threatens millions
of dollars of development, including his own 460-unit residential complex on
the canal's shores, for little gain. "At the end of the day, what we'll have
is a waterway where, instead of eating one fish a month, you can safely eat
a couple," he said. "In a perfect world, it's a good thing, but for people
on the canal, it won't make that much of a difference."

But when presented with the potentially higher costs and timeline of a
city-run cleanup, Von Spreckelsen began to concede that it might not be the
best option. "If that were the case, of course we'd say that's fantastic,"
he said. "Nobody has a bigger interest in seeing this cleaned up than us
because we have our rezoning and we're ready to build." Von Spreckelsen did
reiterate that his attorneys had told him the Superfund process would be
intractable, and he remained skeptical that banks would be willing to lend
in a Superfund area.

It may come down to that, though, as the Bloomberg team was dealt a blow on
October 16, when Nydia Velázquez, the area's congresswoman and a tireless
supporter of the canal, sided with Superfund. "With nearly three decades of
experience, the EPA has the expertise and resources to carry out a
comprehensive remediation of these sites, creating a safe place for New
Yorkers to live and work," Velázquez said in a statement.

With the city and the EPA's plans now both official, all that remains is for
the EPA to announce its position on Superfund listing—whether it will take
over the canal or bow to the city. That announcement was expected this fall,
and while it still could possibly be announced, the EPA typically makes such
announcements only twice a year, in March and September. On September 29,
Newtown Creek was announced as another site in the city under consideration
for the Superfund list, but there was no word on the Gowanus.

Whether that means it will wait until March remains to be seen, though, as
Mugdan and others suggested there was nothing stopping the EPA from
announcing it sooner. The mayor has made at least one official call to
discuss the issue personally with Lisa Jackson, the EPA administrator who
used to run New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection.

Marc LaVorgna, a mayoral spokesperson, insisted the city would prevail
because its approach is superior. "They're confident they have the better
plan, and we're not," he said of the EPA. "It's a difference of opinion."

For Richard Plunz, director of the Urban Design Lab at Columbia's Earth
Institute, where he has done work on the Gowanus, the mayor's reasoning is
clear. "I am not so familiar with the details of the NYC alternative plan,"
Plunz wrote in an email. "But of course I understand that the city doesn't
want to hinder real estate investment in the short term with a more
cumbersome (but effective) Superfund cleanup. This game is obvious to all."

*A version of this article appeared in* AN
 Matt Chaban

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