EPA: Gowanus Canal cleanup fund nearly depleted, Trump won’t help

March 29, 2017 By Scott Enman Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The Gowanus Canal’s cleanup fund is on the verge of running out and President Donald Trump’s administration is unlikely to help. The administration recently proposed a 31 percent cut to EPA’s budget, which would eliminate 3,200 EPA employees or 19 percent of the agency’s workforce, according to Reuters. Funding for the Superfund program would drop by $330 million to $762 million. Eagle file photos by Rob Abruzzese
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The Gowanus Canal’s cleanup fund is on the verge of running out and President Donald Trump is not coming to the rescue.

Despite recent reports that the cleanup would move forward as planned — unrestrained by the Trump administration — the project is actually in jeopardy.  

Gowanus Canal Project Manager Christos Tsiamis, a 25-plus-year veteran of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), alerted Gowanus residents at a monthly Community Advisory Group (CAG) meeting on Tuesday of the fund’s bleak future.

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“We have enough money to go through perhaps April, but that’s about it,” said Tsiamis. “There is a need for money and without that money, nothing can be done. We have made a request for additional funds to continue oversight and the silence has been deafening.”

In spite of recent progress in the canal, including removal of debris in October, if the EPA does not receive additional funds, the $506 million Superfund cleanup process will be delayed significantly.  

Tsiamis told attendees that he requested $400,000-$500,000 from EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. and that that money would provide enough funding for six to eight months.

He says that if he doesn’t receive funds, his six-person team, tasked with overseeing the cleanup process, will diminish down to just himself.

“I will not have the service of the team I have had for eight years,” said Tsiamis. “Without funds to fund my team, the project is going to slow down and it’s going to be significantly slower.

“Instead of taking six months, it will take two years or something like that to complete the design.”

The 100-foot-wide, 1.8-mile noxious canal — referred to by some as arguably the dirtiest waterway in America — was declared a Superfund site in 2010.

Superfund, which was created by Congress in 1980, gives the EPA the resources and ability to investigate and clean up polluted sites.

The parties responsible for polluting the canal are required to pay for the cleanup, but that process can take a long time as the EPA tries to reach settlements with the responsible companies.

The money received from settlements is put into a “special account,” but that account is currently empty.  

Tsiamis said the special account recently had roughly $3 to $4 million in it, but EPA used it up already.

“Right now, that special account is depleted,” said Tsiamis. “That is a fact.”

Trump’s administration proposed a 31 percent cut to EPA’s budget on March 16, which would eliminate 3,200 EPA employees, or 19 percent of the agency’s workforce, according to Reuters. Funding for the Superfund program would drop by $330 million to $762 million.

That money would go toward a Trump budget that would see an increase in military spending and a wall along the Mexico-U.S. border.

Only time will tell what Trump’s next move will be regarding the Gowanus Canal since his real estate-mogul son-in-law Jared Kushner owns property along the waterway at 225 Third St. across from a Whole Foods supermarket.


Knight in Shining Armor

Although the Gowanus Canal’s cleanup fund runs the risk of becoming depleted, one member of Congress is manning a campaign to stymie Trump’s efforts.

“I intend to work with the Gowanus CAG and the regional EPA to secure resources they need for the remediation of the canal to go forward,” U.S. Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY) told the Brooklyn Eagle. “However, unfortunately, problems like these will only become more common throughout the nation if Trump continues his assault on our environment.

“Whether it is a hiring freeze, proposals to slash the agency’s budget by 30 percent or yesterday’s order on climate change, this administration seems dead set on putting polluters before the public health. We must resist these ill-conceived, immoral policies at every turn.”

Velázquez recently introduced legislation that would undo Trump’s January presidential memorandum that froze staffing levels at all federal agencies, including the EPA. The bill, H.R. 1716, would ensure that the EPA has adequate staffing.

“President Trump’s hiring freeze makes for bad policy all around, but is particularly damaging when it comes to our environment,” said Velázquez. “We need EPA to be fully staffed so they can protect our air and water and administer programs that keep local communities healthy.”

Velázquez represents New York’s 7th Congressional District, which encompasses the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek, both of which are Superfund sites.

While many Brooklynites know of the Gowanus Canal, fewer are aware of Brooklyn’s almost equally toxic body of water: Newtown Creek.

The 3.5-mile estuary runs through a part of the border between Brooklyn and Queens and along the edges of Greenpoint and East Williamsburg.

“The Superfund program allows us to turn around local environmental sore spots, reduce public health risk by removing contaminants and enables commerce to thrive in previously blighted areas,” said Velázquez.

“Importantly, this initiative applies the principle of ‘polluter pays’ so cleanup costs are borne by those responsible for environmental harm. However, for this program to work, EPA needs adequate staff and I’m concerned Trump’s hiring freeze could hamstring the Superfund program.”

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