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City to EPA: Commit or quit

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The EPA’s deadline for public comments on cleaning up Newtown Creek ended on December 23, and the city has responded with a comprehensive report that neither supports nor opposes Superfund designation.

Instead, city environmental officials listed a bevy of concerns regarding the EPA’s remediation of the 3.8-mile waterway and requested commitments from the federal agency before such designation occurs.

“Without question, the city shares EPA’s goal of a prompt and comprehensive remediation of contaminated creek sediment that is protective of human health and the environment,” said the comment record, submitted by incoming DEP Commissioner Caswell Holloway. “The city requests that, should the site be designated, EPA achieve remedial goals utilizing the most ambitious national model of intergovernmental and community collaboration throughout the process in order to prevent unnecessary impacts to stakeholders including the burden of delays, restrictions, disinvestment, financial hardship and wasted capital.”

While shorter than their comments for the EPA’s Superfund recommendation for the Gowanus Canal, the report nevertheless included concerns culled from several public presentations made to community groups over the past two months.

The most pressing involves potential liability that may arise as construction on planned capital improvement projects along the creek proceeds. According to both parties, EPA officials have given the city verbal assurances that any navigational dredging plans in the creek would be acceptable with the government’s proposed Superfund nomination, but that the Department of Environmental Protection and the Deputy Mayor’s office seeks a written commitment.

“The city is not only concerned about potential liability or delay in work schedules, but also that planned work may later be found to be inconsistent with, or otherwise hinder, impede or interfere with, the performance of required remedial investigation or remedial actions in Newtown Creek,” said the public comment. “This could necessitate that work be halted or even reversed.”

Another worry, elucidated by Daniel Walsh, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Environmental Remediation, is that potentially liable parties Exxon-Mobil, Texaco-Chevron, British Petroleum, Phelps Dodge and National Grid, known as the Newtown Creek Group, may eventually attempt to establish that they do not have liability under Superfund and shift responsibility on other parties, such as the city and its taxpayers.

“The EPA must be aware of the self-serving objectives of these industrial polluters and safeguard the remedial program from this inappropriate influence,” said Walsh in a letter attached to the public comments.

The report also echoed the concerns of several community groups about affordable housing projects and open space commitments as part of the 2005 Greenpoint-Williamsburg Rezoning, which could be delayed or made more expensive if Superfund listing occurs. The city has been urging the EPA not to restrict public access to the Williamsburg waterfront or delay the construction of projects, including 12,909 units of housing, through dredging work. City officials estimate that construction delays could cost between $515 million and $743 million in lost tax revenue depending on the length of the cleanup.

The anxieties of local industrial businesses, which employ approximately 34,000 individuals, comprise a significant portion of the city’s public comments. Many small businesses have expressed fears of being named a potentially liable party while also having difficulty obtaining financing from banks reluctant to invest in properties on or near a Superfund site.

To allay the fears and concerns of business owners, residents, and public officials, the city has sought comprehensive written commitments from EPA “that it will meet the shared expectations of the city and affected communities for a full and transparent process.”

“The city believes that imposition of the Superfund remedial program must first and foremost be accompanied by EPA’s appointment of a full-time, dedicated, multidisciplinary regional project management team that is staffed in proportion to the enormity and importance of the project and the large number of impacted New Yorkers that live proximal to the creek,” said the report.

An EPA spokesperson said that they received the city’s report last week and will be reading through all public comments in the coming weeks.

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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