The head of the federal scrub of the infamous Gowanus Canal retired this month after 13 years on the job in Brooklyn — passing the torch to a new face who will see the project to its completion.
Christos Tsiamis bid adieu to the federal Environmental Protection Agency and his role as Remedial Project Manager at the Gowanus Canal Superfund site on June 16, and immediately flew to Greece to give a keynote speech about his work on the canal at the International Congress of Environmental Geotechnics.
Since 2010, when the canal was officially named a federal Superfund site, 72-year-old Tsiamis has helped to plan and carry out the cleanup, coordinating with local governments and partners and becoming a fixture at regular meetings of the Gowanus Canal Community Advisory Group.
“When I spoke to you, immediately after the 2010 listing of the Gowanus Canal as a Superfund site, I made a promise,” Tsiamis said in a June 9 email to the CAG. “I had said that I felt that it was time for me to give back to New York City for all the good things that the City had given me since the time I arrived here to study engineering on a scholarship. The Gowanus Canal cleanup would be my opportunity to fulfill that promise.”
Once a month, Tsiamis and his colleagues provided straightforward updates to CAG members and locals on behalf of the EPA — updating them on progress, plans, and setbacks.
Progress at the Gowanus Canal Superfund site
Manufactured gas plants and other industrial businesses once lined the banks of the canal — and, in a pre-regulatory era, dumped their toxic waste right into the body of water.
Even decades after the plants shuttered, the canal was still full of toxic sludge known as “black mayonnaise,” and the soil and groundwater surrounding the canal were heavily contaminated with coal tar and other carcinogens.
The canal has come a long way since 2010 — thousands of pounds of black mayonnaise have been dredged from the bottom of the canal; cleanup is underway at state-owned Brownfield sites in the nabe; and measures have been installed to prevent chemicals from seeping back into the canal from the contaminated land around it.
“Thirteen years later, I can tell you that, since that time, day after day I gave it all, to the best of my ability, to ensure that your community gets what it deserves, after so many decades of environmental neglect,” Tsiamis said in his email to the CAG.
The engineer counted critical parts of the scrub among his “personal main accomplishments,” including the insisting on installing combined sewer overflow tanks as part of the cleanup and pushing state and private partners to thoroughly decontaminate Brownfield sites adjacent to the canal.
But he was not alone in his efforts — in his farewell email, Tsiamis thanked his primary partners in Gowanus, community liaison Natalie Loney and assistant regional counsel Brian Carr, for their hard work and dedication.
“It occurs to me that, in the way that the majority of the Beatles songs are attributed to ‘Lennon and McCartney’ as though they were creating as a unit, in the same manner, what has been achieved in the Canal as a result of our efforts should be attributed to ‘Carr and Tsiamis’, indistinguishably,” he wrote.
In the years leading up to his retirement — as dredging began and the city prepared for the massive Gowanus rezoning — Tsiamis sometimes drew ire from local officials.
In 2021, a representative of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation accused the federal official of “unprofessional conduct” after Tsiamis told the CAG he believed the state’s planned cleanup of a future affordable housing development in Gowanus was inadequate.
The EPA has also frequently tangled with city officials regarding the construction of the two CSO tanks — the city repeatedly missed design and construction deadlines, even as the feds warned delays would risk the progress made by the cleanup.
As the federal agency threatened heavy fines as penalty for missing the milestones, city officials denied they had violated their orders, insisting all was well.
Over the last several months, relations with city and state officials leveled out — the city has accelerated its projected timeline for finishing the CSO tanks, and, according to Tsiamis, the state has agreed to abide by EPA requirements for Brownfield sites.
“There have been various changes and challenges over the years that have slowed progress more than we’d like,” Carr wrote in a send-off email to the CAG. “In the end, however, Christos has managed to reach a position of mutual respect and understanding with all of the key stakeholders needed to produce a comprehensive cleanup. Over time, it is difficult to resist being swayed by his sincerity, expertise, and willingness to collaborate whenever possible.”
Crossing the finish line
The EPA plans to finish capping the dredged portions of the canal this year, and the city is expected to finish building the CSO tanks by 2028 and 2029, respectively. Though there is much work still to be done, the federal portion of the cleanup is in the home stretch.
“I am leaving having made sure that I have led the project to crucial milestones,” Tsiamis said. “It will only require good stewardship to carry through all the components of the cleanup project that have already been put in place.”
According to the Superfund site’s website, a new Remedial Project Manager, Joel Singerman, will take the reins from Tsiamis, though Carr noted that additional team members will be brought on to fill the gap he will leave behind.
“I expect that you will soon meet the new members of EPA’s team,” Carr wrote. “That it will take three project managers to fill the shoes of one rather small Greek immigrant says a lot.”