Superfund showdown on the Gowanus

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A proposal for a federally overseen clean-up of the Gowanus Canal sounds like something that everyone can get behind, but it’s actually pitting neighbor against neighbor over facts and hearsay that are as murky as the waterway itself.

Posters clamoring for the Environmental Protection Agency to list the infamous canal as a federal Superfund site have materialized on storefront windows in Carroll Gardens and outside nearby brownstones almost overnight — even as anonymously written fliers have started showing up in area mailboxes claiming that such a designation would depress home values and not actually speed the clean-up of the fetid corpse of water.

While the activists fight it out, residents are caught wondering who — and what — to believe.

“If we can get help from the government, then why not?” asked Jerry Finazza, the owner of the Smith Street pizzeria Giardini’s.

But Finazza, who put a “Super Fund Me” poster in the window, quickly began doubting that the EPA program is a solution after reading that most clean-ups are delayed by years of litigation and sometimes involve lawsuit against the municipalities themselves.

“If they don’t charge the city, then OK,” he said. “But if New York has to pay, then forget it.”

The Lavender Lake is debased with industrial toxins like PCBs, dioxin and coal tar, as well as human waste that overflows from the city sewers during heavy storms. An EPA-led cleanup would attempt to remove all the sediment from the canal and prevent uplands pollutants from leaching into it.

But there are existing plans for the city to dredge about 10 percent of the canal and improve the infrastructure to pump more fresh water through it. The state is also monitoring several former gas plant sites near the canal. The EPA could freeze this progress while it establishes its own cleanup program for the Gowanus.

Councilman Bill DeBlasio (D–Carroll Gardens), whose environmental credentials include legislation to make electronics recycling mandatory and an effort to ban taboo Styrofoam in schools, has actually landed in the anti-Superfund camp, a faction that includes his opponent from so many other fights, Mayor Bloomberg. The mayor says that a Superfund listing could deter $400 million in private investment around and quash his goal of turning it into a residential community.

“For years, I have supported cleaning up the Gowanus Canal, but I am skeptical that declaring the canal a Superfund site is the best way to clean it,” DeBlasio said in a statement. “I believe local economic projects are an essential part of the clean-up effort, and I hope the EPA will work with the state and local government, as well as the community, to find the best way to clean up the canal.”

That statement won him the enmity of some of the most vocal Superfund believers.

Like the councilman, some people who live near the canal have become hesitant to jump on the pro-Superfund bandwagon like their more adamant neighbors.

“Initially, I thought it would be a good, but I want to know about the realities of government funding first,” said Jessica Oakley, a Hoyt Street resident.

She also dismissed arguments that Superfund status will bring shame on the community.

“I don’t think having it labeled as a Superfund site will make it any worse. Everyone knows it’s polluted,” Oakley said.

The complexity of the Superfund debate has confounded even Borough President Markowitz, the usually outspoken leader who put out an ambivalent position on the canal last week.

“I am committed to the restoration of the Gowanus Canal into an absolute asset to Brooklyn, our economy, arts and culture scene, and the well-being of neighboring communities,” said the statement, which dodged the question of whether the EPA should become involved.

In the end, this is New York; some residents were downright pessimistic about ever seeing a cleaned-up waterway.

“It probably won’t be cleaned up while I’m living here, so it doesn’t matter to me,” said Beth Tasso.

Updated 5:12 pm, July 9, 2018
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Reasonable discourse

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 pm
Margaret from Gowanus says:
I am sorry you feel so angry, Paul, but cleaning the canal comprehensively is not only for those "damn canoe" people. I have never been in a canoe on the Gowanus, but I have lived in Gowanus 25 years. I have smelled it, seen the crap, and read the list of toxins in it. It is severely sick and needs to be remediated comprehensively. That is scientific fact. And only the Feds can do it. There is political will here. I read that the EPA has been allocated 600 million, with more to come.
Superfund is NOT going to postpone cleanup, because there IS NO other clean up plan that is really going to address all that needs to be addressed. And no one can do this better, has more experience, than the EPA.
May 1, 2009, 4:06 pm
Fred from the neighb says:
The choice here is to stick with the current situation or go with Superfund.

The mayor has had 8 years to do something, and what has he done--repeatedly delayed the plans to repair the Flushing Tunnel. If the mayor's goal was to allow housing here why hasn't the Flushing Tunnel work been completed by now as it had once been scheduled to be? So now he has granted a zoning change to a big time developer to build some of that housing and all that has happened on the Gowanus has been the installation of a new rope across the canal at Sacket Street. It would have been nice if thay atleast dredged the 300 yards of the canal they have been takling of dredging for years, before they build that housing.
The piece meal cleanup is already slower that crap floating down the canal.
May 2, 2009, 2:21 pm
k from cg says:
I am shocked that people are living in the Gowanus Canal area -- a Superfund site. No children, nor anyone should be permitted to live there given the contaminant dangers. The city and state will be sued for billions when all the people living there now will die of cancer. The city must vacate the area immediately and condemn all the contaminated housing there. State legislation is necessary to that end. I will write to our legislators.
Nov. 24, 2009, 1:08 pm

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