Bklyn’s Nautical Purgatory in purgatory! Fate of canal cleanse in limbo with EPA off job due to federal shutdown

Done!: The Environmental Protection Agency this month completed its pilot dredging-and-capping program inside the Gowanus Canal's Fourth Street Turning Basin.
Photo by Jason Speakman

The Feds’ slow-going cleanse of the toxic Gowanus Canal is now stuck in the muck yet again thanks to the longest government shutdown in American history.

Environmental Protection Agency leaders gained momentum in their years-in-the-making scrub last November, when they finally wrapped a pilot program to remove some of the toxic “black mayonnaise” from a portion of the canal’s floor, and seal the bottom to prevent more chemicals from seeping in.

That job — which finished six months after its April 2018 deadline — left a portion of Brooklyn’s Nautical Purgatory cleaner than it has been in more than a century, the Agency’s project manager Christos Tsiamis said at the time.

But now, Tsiamis and the rest of his crew are off the clock and without a paycheck thanks to President Trump’s refusal to reopen the federal government after its record 27-day closure.

The Feds can’t get back to work in the canal until the commander-in-chief decides to put the American people above his beloved wall at the United States–Mexico border, according to the head of the local Gowanus Community Advisory Group, who said the shutdown left his organization rudderless, too, because it operates under a contract with the federal environmental agency.

“It’s not a good situation for anybody, it’s ridiculous,” said Doug Sarno. “There’s no one working on the EPA side, they are just not allowed to. I can’t work while the government is shutdown.”

And unless Trump and Congress reach an agreement to reopen the government in the coming days, neither Sarno nor anyone from the Environmental Protection Agency will attend the Advisory Group’s Jan. 22 meeting, where leaders of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection are expected to present designs for a giant, controversial tunnel to collect storm-water runoff that they recently proposed building instead of two long in-the-works sewage tanks.

“No one will be at the January meeting unless the government opens up,” Sarno said. “I can’t go to the meeting.”

But the Superfund site’s clean-up, which kicked off back in 2016, hasn’t entirely ground to a halt — yet.

The canal’s two biggest polluters responsible for funding the cleanse — the city and utility company National Grid — are still doing their part to move it forward. But if the government does not reopen, those parties will eventually hit a proverbial wall the next time they seek federal approval for their work, Sarno said.

“They are doing all they can but at some point EPA has to review, and come into the process,” he said.

A rep for the environmental agency did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment, instead sending an automatic reply citing the shutdown for his absence.

“Out of the office for the duration of the government shutdown,” read the e-mail from Elias Rodriguez. “Messages will not be checked. We will address your message when the office reopens.”

Reps for National Grid and the city said both parties are currently continuing their work on the cleanse.

Reach reporter Julianne Cuba at (718) 260–4577 or by e-mail at jcuba@schnepsmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @julcuba.

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