State scolds EPA guru for voicing concerns about pollution at Gowanus Green site

affordable housing
Christos Tsiamis at the virtual Dec. 1 CAG meeting and a rendering of the Gowanus Green project.
Screenshot/Department of City Planning

A federal environmental official found himself in hot water after alerting locals to the environmental challenges for a planned affordable housing complex in Gowanus above a mound of toxic pollution — prompting a scathing response from his state counterparts, who accused him of using “flippant, unsubstantiated” language that drums up unnecessary fear.

“I hope you will agree that such flippant, unsubstantiated statements have no place in a public forum where public servants from coordinating state and federal agencies are providing factual information to the public,” wrote Michael Ryan of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in a letter obtained by Brooklyn Paper.

Ryan’s Dec. 7 letter comes after federal EPA rep Christos Tsiamis suggested at a community meeting that the site at Smith and Fifth streets — where the state is cleaning up the remnants of a former gasoline plant, and the city is looking to build an affordable housing complex known as Gowanus Green — is potentially dangerous, as toxins could rise up from deep underground and spread inside the proposed structure. 

In response to Tsiamis’ warnings, Ryan called the remarks “misinformation” in his letter, and accused the EPA rep of “unprofessional conduct.”

“This unprofessional conduct is not only inappropriate but dangerous, as it publicly questions the sound remedial program that NYSDEC has rightly determined, with EPA concurrence, will protect public health and the environment,” Ryan wrote. 

The site, currently called Public Place, is polluted from a century’s-worth of work by Citizens Manufactured Gas Plant, including the toxic byproduct coal tar, which officials have found there at depths of more than 150 feet.

Utility firm Nation Grid is currently excavating and filling in clean soil at depths between 2- and 22-feet as part of a two-year Brownfield Cleanup Program set to wrap this summer, and the city plans to give the publicly-owned site to a group of developers to build a 950-unit below-market-rate complex with a waterfront park and space for a school as part of the proposed Gowanus rezoning.

As part of his warning, Tsiamis, a three-decade veteran of EPA who manages the Canal’s deep cleanse, said that the builders will have to make sure harmful volatile chemical compounds in the soil don’t escape and endanger the health of future residents, pupils, and park visitors.

At the December meeting, Tsiamis said that the coal tar — known by locals as “black mayonnaise” — will have to be pumped out of the ground for years to come, likely at the point where it accumulates, below the proposed waterfront park.

“From my experience standing around those wells when they are pumped is not a pleasant [experience],” he said at the time. “I don’t think children — or even adults — should be playing around when this is happening. Pumping of the tar will occur certainly for our lifetimes.”

The developers behind the Gowanus Green affordable housing site — Fifth Avenue Committee, the Bluestone Organization, the Hudson Companies, and the Jonathan Rose Companies — have applied with the state’s cleanup program in case further remediation is needed after National Grid is done, and ahead of them breaking ground. However, details of any potential follow-up cleanup have been scant in the city’s presentations on the project. 

While Tsiamis was giving his now-infamous warnings, a state rep tried to jump in — saying locals should direct their concerns to the state agency’s project manager, John Miller.

Tsiamis countered, however, saying that his own decade of experience working on the Gowanus enabled him to give better insight than other officials who haven’t been working in the area as long.

“I have a depth of knowledge in the project that — with all due respect — other people present at DEC right now they don’t have,” Tsiamis said. “I can inform the public by stating the facts that perhaps are not known to others, including Miller of the state, because simply he wasn’t around when these discussions took place.”

Those comments were “deeply concerning,” according to Ryan, who also accused Tsiamis of confusing the state’s current cleanup with a potential future remediation by the developers, and providing false claims about the site’s history, which officials have been trying to redevelop since the Michael Bloomberg administration.

Ryan added that DEC’s plan had been approved by the state’s Department of Health and the federal EPA — and that the national agency indicated in an August 2017 email that they had no comments on the remedy. 

Ryan also demanded the EPA disavow Tsiamis’s comments. 

“The narrative presented to the CAG does a grave disservice to NYSDEC, NYSDOH, and most importantly the public, which our agencies collectively serve. As such, it would be appropriate for the EPA to issue a retraction of these statements, which includes a correction of all misinformation,” he wrote.

Tsiamis, however, was on vacation when the EPA had signed off on the plans — denying him a chance to weigh in on the agency’s decision to okay the plan, he said.

EPA honcho Pat Evangelista responded to Ryan’s letter on Jan. 6 saying he “appreciated” the concerns, and would try to coordinate better with the state in the future — while offering to meet with them and iron out the details sometime that month. 

“We could discuss how EPA and NYSDEC can reassure the community of our joint expectation that the efforts performed by NYSDEC and the developer will protect public health and the environment at the site,” Evangelista wrote in the letter obtained by Brooklyn Paper.

The federal official did not directly comment on whether Tsiamis’s statements were factual, nor did he offer to retract them, and it is unclear whether that subsequent meeting ever happened. 

When reached for comment, Tsiamis directed Brooklyn Paper to EPA’s press office, and an agency spokesman declined to meaningfully comment beyond what was already in Evangelista’s response letter. 

“EPA’s response on January 6 to NYSDEC conveys our position in clear terms. Mr. Tsiamis’ provided statements at the December 1st CAG meeting as his professional judgment,” said Stephen McBay in an emailed statement. “EPA and NYSDEC are aligned in our expectation that cleanup efforts at the site performed by NYSDEC and the developer must protect public health and the environment.”

At the next community meeting following his statements, Tsiamis was a no-show and several members of the group worried that he was being punished for speaking out.

“I hope to God he is not going to be hurt by this in his role at EPA,” said Diane Buxbaum at the virtual gathering.

Another member said that, even if the engineer didn’t follow bureaucratic protocol, he should not be penalized for trying to help make the site clean and safe.

“His honesty is going to make this cleanup better,” said Peter Reich. “Everyone on this Zoom wants that site as clean as possible and Christos was just saying, ‘It doesn’t look like it’s gonna happen if we don’t push a little bit,’ and he was sticking his neck out.”

At a heated January meeting, members approved a resolution in support of Tsiamis and his team, thanking the official for his frank input the month before.

“The CAG continues to be thankful to Mr. Tsiamis for sharing his extensive knowledge of the issues around the canal and the contamination of Public Place,” read the letter.

A spokesman for the Gowanus Green development group said the builders will have to get the green light from government agencies across all three levels to ensure their plans are safe and that the team will keep the public informed as they move forward.

“We are working with a host of city, state and federal agencies on the scope of our additional site investigation. All of those agencies will need to endorse our investigation and cleanup plans, thus confirming that the site will be safe to occupy before any development begins,” said James Yolles in a statement. “We look forward to keeping the community and other local stakeholders updated on those efforts as they move forward.”

Update (Monday, Feb. 8, 7:45 pm): This story has been updated to include comment from the Gowanus Green development team.