From skepticism to optimism: A new tone surrounding the Gowanus Canal cleanup

Velázquez vows that Trump won't stymie environmentalists

November 17, 2017 By Scott Enman Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Dozens of people gathered at a town hall on Thursday to hear about the progress of the Gowanus Canal Superfund cleanup. Keynote speaker U.S. Rep Nydia Velázquez, Councilmember Brad Lander and state Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon all promised to continue fighting for the waterway. Eagle file photo by Rob Abruzzese
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When one thinks of the Gowanus Canal, images of pollution, trash and the notorious black mayonnaise come to mind.

For many years, the tone surrounding America’s dirtiest waterway was one of pessimism, disgust and distrust.

Slowly but surely, however, that dialogue has shifted into a more positive light.

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That transition was apparent at the Gowanus Superfund Town Hall on Thursday night, where elected officials and members of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) updated attendees on the progress of the cleanup.

At a packed gymnasium in Boerum Hill, dozens of concerned constituents and numerous news outlets attended to hear from keynote speaker U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez, Councilmember Brad Lander and state Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon.

“The cleanup and restoration of the Gowanus Canal is not only an effort and undertaking by the federal government, but it takes a whole village to make this happen and to make it happen the right way,” Velázquez said.

“We are cleaning up the canal in a manner respectful of community needs,” she said. “We have a long way to go, but today, the pilot dredging marks an important milestone. The Gowanus [Canal] is a high-profile Superfund site thanks to community engagement and focus by all of you and we’re seeing the results of that.”

In March, there was a brief moment of panic when President Donald Trump’s administration proposed a 31 percent cut to EPA’s budget and vowed to eliminate 3,200 EPA employees.

In addition, the new administration promised to cut funding for the Superfund program from $762 million to $330 million.

Velázquez received applause after she vowed her continued support for the canal, despite President Trump’s efforts to dismantle EPA. She said that the 2018 funding for the Superfund program would match, if not surpass, that of 2017.

“I know a lot of people were concerned when President Trump sent the budget to us,” Velázquez said. “As we all know, the president proposes and that is his duty, but it is our privilege, the members of Congress, to dispose of the budget. So when they cut the Superfund program by $330 million, we restored the funding.

“For 2017, the funding for the Superfund is $1.08 billion and we are on track this year to improve a similar amount or maybe slightly higher, so no one should be concerned that the Superfund program will not have the money to continue the work we are doing here,” she said.  

The 100-foot-wide, 1.8-mile toxic canal was declared a Superfund site in 2010.

One of the most fearful images of the Superfund site is the canal bottom, where a “black mayonnaise” sludge has accumulated for more than a century. According to Christos Tsiamis, the EPA’s Senior Project Manager for the Gowanus Canal Superfund site, the black goo is comprised of highly toxic elements that include liquid tar, garbage and petroleum products.

The plan to clean the Gowanus Canal — which is estimated to cost $506 million —includes not only dredging contaminated deposit that has accumulated because of industrial and sewer discharges, but also installing an 8 million-gallon and a 4-million-gallon combined sewage overflow (CSO) retention tank along the canal.

The CSO tanks will collect excess rainwater and sewage that normally flows into the canal during heavy downpours.

Once those chambers fill up, rainwater and some waste will still go into the canal, but that “second flush” will be cleaner. After the rain stops, the liquid in those containers will flow back into the sewers.

In addition to vowing funding for the Superfund program, Velázquez asked EPA to create a Superfund Job Training Institute that would employ Brooklynites during the cleanup process.

“This is a tough community and you know quite well that we deserve better and we must work collectively to provide the kind of feedback, input, that you do research, and that you ask the tough questions and hold elected officials accountable, hold agencies accountable because we work for you,” Velázquez said.

EPA officials described some obstacles, including replacing the deteriorating bulkheads along the canal and restringing cables on the old drawbridges.

The next steps will include National Grid removing coal tar and other contaminants underneath Thomas Greene Park and creating a “Fulton Cut-Off Wall” from the head of the canal to the Union Street Bridge. The wall is like a bulkhead, but it runs 50 feet underground.

The pool in Thomas Greene Park will need to be removed for the cleanup, but EPA officials assured the audience that a temporary pool would be created before any work is done.

The New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is currently designing the two CSO tanks.

The canal will be divided into three different cleanup areas: RTA 1, RTA 2 and RTA 3A and RTA 3B.

Clean-up Area One will be from Butler Street to Third Street, Clean-up Area Two will be from Third Street to Ninth Street and Clean-up Area Three will be from Ninth Street to 21st Street.

The cleanup of RTA 1 is expected to begin in 2020.

One Thing Leads to Another

While there was an optimistic feeling in the room on Thursday, at least one group of attendees was upset over the potential demolition of a historic building to make room for the 8-million-gallon CSO tank.

The city wants to install the larger CSO tank at the head of the canal at 234 Butler St. That address is private property, and the city would have to buy the land at market value or acquire it through eminent domain.

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

To install the tank, the city is considering removing the Gowanus Station.

While residents support DEP’s effort to install a CSO tank on the property, they do not want the Gowanus Station to be destroyed.

“This magnificent building is over 100 years old,” Linda Mariano, a member of Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus, said. “Its design and sculptural elements tie directly into the history of the Gowanus neighborhood’s relationship with water.

“It can and should be saved.”

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