EPA issues cleanup plan for Gowanus Canal

October 3, 2013 By Trudy Whitman Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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ROD stands for “record of decision” and is one of a slew of initials and acronyms that those following the progress of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund designation and investigation of the putrid brew that is the Gowanus Canal have had to familiarize themselves with. The actual cleanup will not begin until 2015, and the process is likely to take a decade, but the ROD, made public on Sept. 30, means there is no going back.  Because of over a century of industrial waste dumped and piped into the Gowanus, it will never be a pristine waterway, but it does promise to be a whole lot better after remediation.

In spite of protests from the Bloomberg administration, which wanted to handle the cleanup itself, the Gowanus Canal was declared a Superfund national priority in March 2010. What followed were months of investigation and field studies, including a bathymetric (underwater depth) evaluation and the analysis of both native and soft (deposited after the canal was created) sediment, as well as studies of surface and ground water. Tissue samples from marine life were also examined and evaluated. CSOs (combined sewer overflows), the waste-waters that overpower the sewage system during heavy rainstorms and flow into the canal as a result, as well as other outfalls—some still fouling the waters—were studied as well by the EPA and other government and private conservation entities.

What resulted was a hefty RI (remedial investigation) published in 2011 consisting of thousands of pages of documents that included long lists of toxic chemicals, heavy metals and organic compounds deemed hazardous to humans and wildlife alike.

The release of the ROD is considered a giant step by elected officials and heads of community groups. In a press release, Community Board 6 District Manager, Craig Hammerman, called the ROD an “important milestone in the continuing cleanup of our Gowanus Canal. Today is the day we get to shift our focus from the possible to the achievable, where we get to concentrate all our thoughts and energies moving forward on the implementation of the plan itself.”

A press release from City Councilmember Brad Lander’s office summarized the remediation plans described in the EPA’s 96-page document. Highlights include removal of contaminated sediment and capping of dredged areas; the reduction of CSOs through the installation of retention tanks (the city is engaged in a project to overhaul the Gowanus flushing tunnel that will also help ameliorate this problem); and removal of contaminated material from the 1st Street turning basin and restoration of the former basin.

The EPA document notes that barges will be used for the transport of dredged sediment outside of New York and that this practice will impact water-based traffic on the canal as well as residents nearby: “The EPA will establish plans to mitigate such impacts, though these impacts cannot be eliminated. Appropriate measures will be taken to limit noise, odors and other impacts associated with dredging and processing of the sediments.”

One of the proposed storage tanks is raising the ire of a grassroots group called The Friends of Douglass/Greene Park. The group has been fundraising for several years to improve the quality of the park at Douglass and DeGraw streets between Third Avenue and Nevins Street. The famous “Double D” pool is situated inside the park. In 2010, Friends advocated successfully against possible closure of the pool. Now the suggested waste-water storage tank threatens its existence.

The costs of the EPA’s Gowanus renovation are estimated to be a little north of $500 million. As with all Superfund sites, funding for the cleanup will come from “potentially responsible parties” (PRPs). Although the City of New York and the U.S. Navy are two of the PRPs cited, most of the damage was done by industries that used the canal as a convenient outhouse. Many of these companies have moved away, merged, or closed down, reported a Sept. 27 New York Times article, which went on to explain that when this occurs, the successor company and the current property owner are responsible for the cleanup costs.

Although the tone of his statement was celebratory, CB 6 leader Craig Hammerman cautioned that “as we move from the conceptual to the practical, things are going to start to get a lot more challenging.” He stressed that the community board and other stakeholders are eager “to work closely with the EPA as we move into this next phase of planning. We offer the benefit of our experience and insight into how this major project can be undertaken to maximize the beneficial outcome for our community while minimizing the unwanted impacts.”

Editor’s note:  A call to Natalie Loney, an official for EPA Region 2, activated a voicemail informing the caller that Loney was out of the office for the duration of the government shutdown and would not be returning calls at this time. Several elected officials contacted by this newspaper would not speculate about how the shutdown would affect the Gowanus Canal remediation timetable.


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