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Opinions & Observations: Gowanus Rezoning DEIS is a propaganda statement obscuring massive health and safety impacts on our community

May 24, 2021 Benjamin Heim Shepard, Voice of Gowanus
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The Gowanus Canal, once a crystal-clear creek named after Chief Gowanes, has long served as a dumping ground for toxic chemicals and other hazardous pollutants. In 2010, this inky, noisome waterway was finally designated an EPA Superfund site. Although clean-up and containment efforts have only just begun this past November (and are slated to continue for at least a decade), private equity backed corporate developers are already seeking to transform this ancient estuary basin with the construction of luxury apartment towers, loading vast new environmental burdens on top of a century of unaddressed environmental harm. The de Blasio Administration is working to deliver for these developers over the will of the community and despite grave concerns voiced by an EPA engineer and scientists studying sea level rise and flooding, by imposing an 80-block rezoning that would bring 20,000+ new residents into a FEMA Flood Zone A.

On April 19th, the Department of City Planning finally released a draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the proposed Gowanus rezoning. The unveiling of this document followed a decade of city government and community debate over the environmental impacts of building housing on deeply polluted soil along the banks of a floodplain next to a toxic waterway—a decade when we saw the sea submerge this same community in 12-feet of ocean water during Hurricane Sandy; a decade that saw increasingly intense rainstorms; a decade when world temperatures hit new highs, pushing up sea levels.

Sadly, the City’s DEIS is deeply flawed and flagrantly inadequate, filled with 1,000 pages of contradictions and evasive, faulty analysis that lead to dangerously convenient conclusions. One particularly egregious example is its utter failure to assess the cumulative impacts of development on the shared sewershed; instead of addressing overcapacity, the City attempts to hide the strain on the aging system by relying primarily on “dry-weather analysis” in its projections, leading to the preposterous conclusion that 20,000+ new toilet flushers “are not projected to affect CSO discharges or water quality in the Gowanus Canal,” which as of this writing, continues to have no limits on the amount of pathogen that can be dumped into its waters. The City is itself the worst active polluter, diverting more than 360 million gallons of raw sewage and overflow into the Canal annually.   

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The DEIS does not address the long-standing Environmental Justice issues that have lead to numerous enforcement actions by Federal and State agencies against the City. And because these legally binding orders remain unresolved, these enforcement agencies have jurisdiction that requires them to be “involved agencies” under the NYS Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) during the analysis and drafting of the DEIS. Needless to say, these agencies were not involved! 

Big picture: the fact that EPA, FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and NYS Department of Environmental Conservation were not involved in preparing the DEIS means that the document as issued is not legally sufficient. As a result, we are calling for the Gowanus draft Environmental Impact Statement to be re-done with the full participation of these involved agencies, as is required by law. 

On May 3rd, Voice of the Gowanus, a coalition of community groups and concerned citizens, wrote to Michael S. Regan, the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to request that the EPA launch an investigation into the decades of failure by state and city officials to address the accumulated and ongoing toxic legacy of the Gowanus environs.

Dredging of contaminated Canal sediments (infamously termed “Black Mayonnaise”) first planned by the US Army Corps of Engineers in the 1970s has only just begun in late 2020, while sewage control requirements dating back to the 1948 Water Pollution Control Act have necessitated order after order to bring about only partial compliance by the City; Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) tanks legally required by the 2013 Superfund mandate are allegedly in their planning stages but remain unfunded and unbuilt by the City of New York. Meanwhile, historic contamination from manufactured gas plant (MGP) sites on land areas contiguous to the Canal remain an ongoing source of contamination, even though the Rivers and Harbors Act has banned such discharges ever since the Canal first became an operating waterway in the 19th century.

New York City has dangerously flooded before and faces increasing risk of coastal, tidal and inland floods, as well as separate or compounding flooding from inadequate sewer system capacity in both wet and dry weather. In Gowanus, coastal, tidal and urban flash flooding are, according to the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency, “a primary concern.” Virtually all of the Gowanus area is subject to inundation requiring mandatory flood insurance, and is subject to floodplain management standards, all of which should be analyzed in the DEIS with the expert input and oversight that these federal agencies should provide; instead, the City attempted to do this analysis itself with questionable underlying assumptions and outdated data, including rainfall levels from 2008. 

In the late 1970s, residents of the Love Canal neighborhood south of Niagara Falls started to experience higher than normal rates of epilepsy, asthma, migraines, and nephrosis—as well as high rates of birth defects and miscarriages. Jordan Kleiman, Associate Professor of Environmental History at SUNY Geneseo, noted the underlying cause: “As it turns out, consecutive wet winters in the late 1970s raised the water table and caused the chemicals to leach into the basements and yards of neighborhood residents.”  

We can only imagine a similar scenario along the Gowanus, a scenario that would include rising seas and storm flooding with concentrations of toxic sewage waste. With increased development built over polluted land along this waterfront, and a climate in flux, it is not hard to imagine significant hardship and environmental injustices for the redeveloped Gowanus Canal envisioned in the city’s rezoning. Many remember Love Canal, but not enough. We would like to prevent a repeat in Brooklyn.

Our federal officials must ensure that EPA, FEMA and Army Corps of Engineers identify themselves as “involved agencies” right now in order to fully address compliance assurance and ongoing interference issues for all actions related to the Gowanus Canal and Neighborhood Planning; long-term health and safety must be put ahead of the short-term interests of private developers.


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