Trump’s EPA rejects city’s tunnel plan for Gowanus Canal cleanup

September 24, 2019 Scott Enman
The Gowanus Canal. Eagle file photo by Rob Abruzzese
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The Environmental Protection Agency has rejected a competing plan put forth by the city to keep untreated sewage from entering the toxic Gowanus Canal.

In a letter obtained by the Brooklyn Eagle, Pete Lopez, regional administrator for EPA Region 2, told the city’s Department of Environmental Protection that his agency would move forward with its long-established decision to build two massive retention tanks along the canal — rather than install a tunnel to collect waste.

“I personally reviewed at great length the materials the city submitted and discussed with others at EPA their analysis of the city’s tunnel proposal, including the potential risks and rewards related to the overall effort to clean up the canal,” Lopez wrote to DEP commissioner Vincent Sapienza on Friday.

“The result of this review has led to our determination that the technical record does not support changing the current remedy approach.”

The city requested that EPA replace two combined sewer overflow (CSO) retention tanks holding 8 and 4 million gallons with a 16 million-gallon CSO tunnel running beneath the upper portion of the canal.

CSO occurs when stormwater runoff and wastewater overwhelm the city’s sewer system during heavy downpours, causing the mixture to be dumped — untreated — into waterways.

Related: Millions to billions: A price breakdown of the Gowanus Canal’s costly sewage tanks

The $1.2 billion tanks are one part of the EPA’s overall plan to clean the federal Superfund site, which also includes dredging contaminated deposit that has accumulated over many years from industrial and sewer discharges.

One tank is estimated to be in operation by 2029, with the other installed by 2030, according to city estimates. The tunnel is expected to be in place by 2030.

A crane operator floating on a barge on the Gowanus Canal lifts the machine’s arm out of the water after dropping sand to the bottom of the canal.
Crews work on the Gowanus Canal. Eagle file photo by Paul Frangipane

EPA officials, however, have said the tunnel option would delay the cleanup by several years and increase the overall price tag by a minimum of $50 million. Lopez estimated in his letter that the evaluation and change process alone of moving from tanks to a tunnel would take at least two years.

“Such delays would effectively increase the duration of the risks to human health and environment before the canal sediments are fully addressed,” he wrote. “I would note that the dredging is also closely tied to the pace of redevelopment and the pending neighborhood rezoning.”

Ted Timbers of DEP told the Eagle that the city is very dissatisfied with the decision, but his agency would continue to meet the milestones of the existing plan.

“President Trump’s EPA is at it again: ignoring science and facts when making significant decisions that impact New Yorkers’ lives,” he said. “We’ve been clear that allowing the city to build a tunnel would provide 33 percent more storage capacity and reduce roadway flooding all with negligible cost and timeline impacts.

“We are extremely disappointed that the EPA is not allowing the city to build a better, less disruptive project for the community.”

Another benefit to the tunnel, according to DEP, is that there will be much less noise, dust and disruption to the neighborhood during the construction and operation of the tunnel — as opposed to the tanks.

While the tunnel has the capacity to hold four million more gallons of waste than the tanks under their respective current designs, EPA officials have long said the size of the two chambers could always increase.

Lopez articulated in his letter that his agency is open to discussing a potential expansion in the volume of the tanks, especially as a potential rezoning for Gowanus moves forward. He promised that his staff would work with the city during the cleanup’s remedial design phase and throughout the rezoning’s Environmental Impact Statement. (An EIS assesses the effects of a potential rezoning on the surrounding community.)

Related: Feds vow to be Gowanus Canal watchdog as city eyes redevelopment

DEP initially presented the alternative option in January to Community Advisory Group members while federal employees were furloughed.

As a potentially responsible party for the canal’s pollution, DEP is on the hook for funding the tanks.

The city and National Grid are tasked with paying for the majority of the cleanup, with more than 25 smaller private parties also contributing.

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.

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  1. Interesting that in your September 20th article about the EPA moving ahead with the cleanup of Newtown Creek 5 years ahead of schedule you didn’t make reference to Trumps EPA. Meanwhile the plan that is going ahead at the Gowanus was approved many years ago and that the proposed tunnel would set the cleanup back two years. Do I smell bias on your headlines on the subject, you bet I do.

    • crawford57

      There is nothing inherently wrong with bias. Trump is a criminal and idiot and federal agencies under his purview are essentially useless and/or destructive. Any legitimate news source would be breaching its responsibility to not include such context.

  2. The EPA decision regarding the tunnel was to stick with the plan formalized in the courts during the Obama administration. The headline does read like Trump-derangement syndrome, where the neo-liberal power (NYC) aligns with “the press”. The city has always been against the EPA actions taken under the Obama admin while causing very expensive delays to the benefit of their many consultants.