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City could be holding bag for feds’ Gowanus clean-up

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The ongoing fight between Mayor Bloomberg and the federal government over the cleanup of the heavily polluted Gowanus Canal is not just about protecting proposed real-estate projects, but also the city treasury.

Thus far, coverage of Bloomberg’s opposition to a federal proposal to add the 1.8-mile canal to the Superfund clean-up program has focused on the mayor’s stated goal of protecting $400 million in anticipated residential development in the industrial neighborhood.

But the mayor could also be trying to save the city from being hit with the clean-up bill.

Despite its name, the Superfund is not a pool of money that federal officials tap into for environmental remediation. In fact, one goal of Superfund designation is to identify guilty polluters and get them to pay to clean up toxic sites.

But there is a long history of towns and municipalities being forced by the EPA to open up their checkbooks to pay for decontaminating polluted land. In February, for example, the upstate cities of Poughkeepsie and Newburgh were held responsible for hazardous material on a car and metal processing plant, and had to cough up $12 million.

Cleaning up the Gowanus, with its dioxins, PCBs, coal tar — and, more important, tens of millions of gallons of raw sewage that spills into it on rainy days — would be considerably more expensive.

The EPA says local governments are usually minor defendants in their suits, but industrial companies have sought big bucks from cities to defray the costs they have to pay to the EPA. In a case from 1989, companies joined together to sue 29 California cities for $500 million as part of a Superfund battle.

The EPA says it does not yet know who would be targeted if the Gowanus Canal is added to the national priority list of Superfund sites, a controversial proposal first floated earlier this month.

Amid this new debate, a clearer picture began to emerge this week about why Gov. Paterson secretly appealed in December for federal assistance with the cleanup of Brooklyn’s infamous channel. It turns out, state officials now believe that their highly touted efforts are neither adequate to clean the area, nor powerful enough to identify parties responsible for the pollution.

The state is currently overseeing the remediation of three brownfields neighboring the canal that were formerly the site of gas plants. Not only is the soil heavily polluted, but the coal tar sludge leaches into the canal, continuing to poison it.

“It became apparent that it made no sense to remediate the canal in isolated areas near the [gas plant] sites when there was contamination present throughout the canal,” said Department of Environmental Conservation spokesman Yancey Roy. “A comprehensive approach to the remediation of the canal is required, one that will not only cut off all upland sources to the canal, but will also include an overall remedy to the canal itself.”

Prior to the possible Superfund designation, there was a mix of efforts to clean parts of the canal and its uplands. In addition to the state-led brownfield program, the city had budgeted $175 million to reduce the amount of untreated sewage that dumps into the canal after heavy rains. The city also planned to dredge 1,000 feet of the waterway.

Private developers, such as Toll Brothers, which wants to build 460-units on two blocks next to the canal, are mandated to clean their sites and build sewer systems that would not add to the waste stream that flows into the Gowanus. But Toll Brothers continues to threaten to nix the project because Superfund designation would stigmatize the neighborhood.

It has already divided the neighborhood.

Some environmentalists say the Superfund designation is the only way to get a comprehensive clean-up of the so-called Lavender Lake. But other do-greeners point out that remediation can take decades, cost far more than anticipated, and not always work.

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Reader Feedback

sid from Boerum Hill says:
what is a "do-greener" that is a new term on me and google never heard of it except as part of a question i.e....Do greener cleaners works?
April 23, 2009, 8:45 am
jody from Park Slope says:
Toll Brothers is more concerned with the stigma attached to being a Superfund site than the dangerous reality that produced that stigma, contaminants that could harm the health of people who buy his condos. Guess that shows us just how craven Toll Brothers really is to put profit over other peoples' lives. Maybe if his child gets some strange case of cancer, he'll think differently about not caring whether he knowingly inflicts that on someone elses' life instead of stepping aside and letting the government clean up his land. Health should always be the highest priority. Also, does he think people won't notice the sight and smell of pollution? The project will do better long term if it's on clean land and water. What's the rush to build? There's too much stuff for sale anyway.
April 23, 2009, 10:21 am
Judah Spechal from Bed-Stuy says:
What about those huge mosquitos? If the goal is singular why can't they do something revolutionary. Work together! It may save money & get the job done.

P.S. Why is condo a must for this site?
April 23, 2009, 11:21 am
Sy from Gowanus says:
Good reporting here.

Yes the city is a major polluter who has not been doing right by the Gowanus for decades. Now that developers want to build condo's along the canal, the city will finally begin the rehab of the 1911 Flushing Tunnel infrastructure, that broke down in 1960's and has been limping along since it was restarted in 1998.

But the city isn't the only "responsible party" which is why we need the EPA to resolve these issues. Superfund has the procedures that the state doesn't. The city in a participating party which is why they can't be the lead entity in this cleanup. As long as the city continues to dismiss the extent of sewage sludge being dumped into the canal, the necessary work will be held up, as it has been for years.

The hardest thing to understand is the city's change in land use policy along the canal, given the environmental conditions. The claim that the canal is "clean enough to live along," doesn't come with any hard science or health studies of the area.
April 23, 2009, 1:22 pm
JP from South Brooklyn says:
Nobody should be building anything on a manufactured gas plant site that has not been remediated.

From the web:
From the early 1800s through the mid-1900s, gas for lighting, heating, and cooking was manufactured from coal or oil at hundreds of plants nationwide. The gas production and purification processes at these manufactured gas plants (MGPs) yielded gas plant by-products and residues that included coal-tars, sludges, lampblack, light oils, spent oxide wastes, and other hydrocarbon products. Although many of these by-products were recycled, excess residues remained at these sites. These residues contain polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), petroleum hydrocarbons, benzene, cyanide, metals, and pheonols. Most of these sites may need to be remediated.

From a government website:
How likely are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) to cause cancer?

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that some PAHs may reasonably be expected to be carcinogens.

Some people who have breathed or touched mixtures of PAHs and other chemicals for long periods of time have developed cancer. Some PAHs have caused cancer in laboratory animals when they breathed air containing them (lung cancer), ingested them in food (stomach cancer), or had them applied to their skin (skin cancer).

If the city and state are unwilling/unable (check your insurance policies!) to pick up the tab for remediation, Superfund is probably the only way to get all responsible parties to pay for it.
April 23, 2009, 2:50 pm
sid from Boerum Hill says:
Most if not all insurance policies have an exclusion for environmental cleanup= especially in a companies policy!
April 23, 2009, 4:55 pm
sam from park slope says:
It's going to be another Love Canal situation if EPA doesn't declare this a Superfund site. Mayor Bloomberg not wanting the Gowanus Canal being declared a Superfund Site DOES NOT STAND ALONE on the wrong side of this issue. Councilman Bill DeBlasio who is running for PUBLIC ADVOCATE also doesn't want the site declared a Superfund site, because he's been bought off by the developerwith campaign contributions. A PUBLIC ADVOCATE should be concerned about the health & welfare of the Citizens of NY, not the Developers. Mr. DeBlasio should be called on the carpet on this issue with all New Yorkers. What's up with that Bill?
April 24, 2009, 12:16 pm
Peg from Gowanus says:
Excellent article, Mike. This is an angle on the truth that we haven't heard before -that the city will have a big bill here, too. All the more reason the EPA is the ONLY way to go. Not some "let the developers work with the city" to clean it up approach, or hybrid thereof. Building dense tall condos along the canal NEVER made sense. But it was getting shoved down the community's throat. At EVERY community meeting I attended where the COMMUNITY gave input on what they wanted for the Gowanus, the response was always: CLEAN IT UP!

The city, developers, and pro-developers' mantra response to that was "You want it cleaned up? The ONLY way that will happen is that we will have to build condos along the canal to create the population that will put pressure on the government to clean it up!" Real scam thinking. And I have no doubt they are in their back rooms now, with their lawyers and PR people, working on the next spin to try to get their way - for example, the current scare tactics on the local people that Superfund is a stigma and the whole neighborhood will go to its doom. So beware! And Toll Bros. should just get out of town. We don't want them.
April 25, 2009, 10:51 pm
Fourth Estate from DUMBO says:
Yes, the city of New York can be trusted to clean a mess they have failed miserably to clean for decades.
April 26, 2009, 10:29 pm
Jason Rowland from Carroll Gardens says:
Some NIBYs say the Superfund designation is the only way to get a comprehensive clean-up of the so-called Lavender Lake. But other do-greeners point out that remediation can take decades, cost far more than anticipated, and not always work.
April 28, 2009, 5:27 pm
Ellen from Gowanus says:
Jason, what does wanting to have the canal cleaned up comprehensively have to do with being a NIMBY??? You are confusing the issue my boy. Only the EPA has the right tools for this job. It will take a longer time than any cosmetic cover up job - but that is what is needed for now and for future generations. NIMBY in this case is Not in my back yard this toxic sick sad Gowanus now that there is FINALLY a chance to remediate it. The community is really taking positive action. Check out: Superfundgowanus.org
May 1, 2009, 7:29 am
AJS from South Brooklyn says:
Great reporting, thanks Mike.
May 1, 2009, 11:53 am
Paul from Gowanus says:
Superfund is guaranteed to postpone cleanup for another 10-20 years so we can all kiss the $175M from our current mayor goodby!

Next question is where will the Feds get the money? They will sue the City, our gas utility and potentially all owners as we all contribute to Gowanus contamination every time it rains.

So in addition to being sued by the Feds if you own property, you will pay higher tax bills and gas bills to offset the costs to City and utility.

All this is good for is so those damn canoe people don't get sick!
May 1, 2009, 1:54 pm
EllenBronx from Midtown Manhattan says:
Mike McLaughlin's articles on Gowanus Canal and Superfund process are just terrific. I live in mid-town Manhattan and was drawn to the articles by the Gotham Gazette - a daily email compendium of news articles about the City put together by Citizens Union.

Mike's articles are what newspaper reporting is all about. Thanks for the education!
May 14, 2009, 10:39 am

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