EPA, DEP reach preliminary agreement on locations for Gowanus CSO retention tanks

Riverkeeper Is Not Pleased

April 26, 2016 By Scott Enman Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The first proposed location for the CSO tank at the head of the Gowanus Canal. Eagle photos by Scott Enman
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The cleanup of the notorious Gowanus Canal — referred to by some as arguably the dirtiest waterway in America — took a small step in the right direction this month.

The plan to clean the Gowanus Canal — which is estimated to cost $506 million — includes dredging contaminated deposit at the bottom of the canal that has accumulated as a result of industrial and sewer discharges, as well as installing two 8 million-gallon sewage and storm water retention tanks to prevent combined sewer overflow, or CSO.

The latter part of the plan progressed on April 14 as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) preliminarily agreed on two locations for the tanks along the canal.

The first location chosen is at the head of the canal at 234 Butler St., next to the Gowanus Pumping Station and Flushing Tunnel. This is a private property that the city would have to acquire through eminent domain.

According to a spokesperson for the Risa Heller firm, which represents Alloy Development, Alloy proposed a large commercial project at 234 Butler St., as well as the donation of up to 50,000 square feet of parkland to avoid eminent domain. Alloy says there is growing community support for the project.

The EPA had previously advised the city to build the tank underneath the Double D Pool in Thomas Greene Park because it was, according to the EPA, the quickest and cheapest option — but the city did not want to take away parkland from the children.

The second proposed location is at a city-owned property at 2nd Avenue and 5th Street.

The saga between the EPA, DEP and the Gowanus community regarding potential locations for the two tanks has been ongoing ever since the EPA finalized its plan to clean up the Gowanus Canal Superfund site in September 2013.

EPA Public Information Officer Elias Rodriguez explained the purpose of the retention tanks to the Brooklyn Eagle.

“When there’s a lot of rain,” said Rodriguez, “the storm water in the sewage pipes combines with sewage underneath the sidewalk, and when there’s too much capacity, it overflows.

“So the idea behind the retention tanks is that when there’s a large rainfall, the water, instead of being discharged, is actually retained in these 8 million gallon tanks until the rain event is over and capacity is lowered and the excess water is gradually discharged,” Rodrigues continued. “You therefore have less of a chance that you’re going to have raw sewage overflowing into the canal.”

Rodriguez told the Eagle that the retention tank “administrative order” regarding the location of the tanks remains in draft form, and that DEP Commissioner Emily Loyd signed the form on behalf of the City on April 14. 

The EPA, according to Rodriguez, intends to finalize the order and sign it pending a review of comments they receive during the public comment period, which ends on May 16.

On Friday, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, New York State Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon and New York City Councilmembers Brad Lander and Stephen Levin issued a statement welcoming the agreement between the EPA and DEP, stating that construction of the tanks “is an essential component of the Gowanus Canal Superfund cleanup, to reverse over a century of environmental degradation and neglect that made the Gowanus Canal one of the most contaminated water bodies in the country.

“Together, the two retention tanks will achieve an estimated reduction of 58 to 78 percent of the combined sewage discharges (CSO) that flow into the Gowanus Canal today,” the statement said.

The statement also addressed the locations of the tanks.

“This location [at the head of the canal] avoids the permanent loss of parkland at nearby Thomas Greene Park — an important community hub for children and families, which was considered as a location for the larger tank — and will actually allow us to increase open space in our community.”

The officials said they will continue to work with the Department of Sanitation and the Gowanus Canal Conservancy as the project develops.

While Brooklyn officials have welcomed the agreement, Riverkeeper, a member-supported watchdog organization that calls itself “New York’s clean water advocate” and whose mission, according to its website, is “to protect the environmental, recreational and commercial integrity of the Hudson River and its tributaries,” believes that this agreement only delays the cleanup process further.

The staff attorney at Riverkeeper, Sean Dixon, spoke with the Eagle about the agreement.

“This agreement is really about throwing in this curveball from the city to put the tanks underneath a parcel of land that they don’t even own, and that’s going to lead to significantly more delay,” Dixon told the Eagle. “If you read the order itself, it doesn’t actually call for the construction of the tank. The order itself only brings the city to the point to begin a start to construction on the tank.”

According to Dixon, putting the tank underneath Thomas Greene Park is the “quickest and cheapest” option because the city has to dig up the park anyway to get rid of contamination below the concrete.

Dixon says that National Grid can start tearing up the park as early as this week to remove contamination, and that the city can place the tanks there when National Grid is done removing the contamination.

“The actual timeline and requirements in the order just take the city to get site acquisition, the design of the tank and partial remediation of the site, but the construction of the tank and timeline for that is yet to be decided upon,” Dixon said. “Basically, this order is an agreement to the creation of a hole in the ground.”

Dixon noted that if the city after four years has not yet acquired the canal side property at 234 Butler St., the EPA has reserved the right to demand that the city put the tank underneath the park.

“As the EPA itself has recognized, digging up the canal side is longer and more expensive, and those are two things that one would think the city, in the interest of cleaning up the Gowanus Canal, would be opposed to,” said Dixon.  “Putting the tank underneath the park will be cheaper and quick, and not putting the tank under the park will add three to four years in delaying the start of cleanup.”

Dixon spoke about the location of the second tank.  

“The second tank location is by the very explicit terms of this order not at all in this order,” Dixon said. “It is separate and apart from the discussion that the EPA is having with the city.”

“That second tank location has not yet been designed,” said Dixon. “It’s still in the works, but they haven’t even ordered the construction of the first larger tank at the head of the canal, let alone gotten around to the order of the second tank.”

Dixon continued. “It’s important for the community to note that there is no order on the books right now that gives any timeframe for the construction of either tank. There’s only one order on the books and that is solely for the timeframe of the creation of a hole in the ground. We still have a long way to go and that is yet more delay,” Dixon added.


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