Superstunned! City backs fed clean-up of Newtown Creek

Greenpoint spill 3 times larger than the Exxon Valdez!
Oily sheen on the Newtown Creek in Greenpoint.
Office of the Attorney General

The Bloomberg Administration has quietly backed a federal effort to list North Brooklyn’s Newtown Creek as a toxic Superfund site — though the city continues to fight the very same classification for the Gowanus Canal.

Two days before Christmas, the city submitted its testimony in support of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Newtown Creek Superfund bid, citing the waterway’s pollution. Yet at the Gowanus Canal, which is similarly befouled — but ripe for luxury development along its banks — the city is bucking the feds and moving forward with its own clean-up.

“The dichotomy is striking — it’s a contradiction, really,” said Eric McClure, a member of the Park Slope Civic Council.

“It makes political sense for the mayor to support the Newtown Superfund designation because it is polluted, too, but, of course, he’s putting the interest of developers ahead of the environment with the Gowanus.”

The mayor downplayed any notion of hypocrisy.

“They are different situations, and we evaluate each one independently,” said Marc La Vorgna, a mayoral spokesperson. “Each situation is not the same.”

The pollution in both waterways certainly is. The main difference is that the city, with the help of developers like Toll Brothers, is hoping to turn the rundown manufacturing zone around the Gowanus Canal into a residential, commercial and manufacturing area with thousands of luxury units and $400 million in private investment.

The fetid banks of the Newtown Creek, on the other hand, have not been eyed by high-profile developers.

City officials say that their own remediation plan will be just as effective — and faster — than the often bogged-down Superfund process. In addition, it will avoid the stigma that comes from Superfund designation, a classification that Toll Brothers has said would make the company unable to build housing.

The city’s plan calls for voluntary contributions from responsible polluters like National Grid rather than forcing what could be a lengthy legal process to drag polluters and their successor companies to court. Then again, the city itself may be named as one of the Gowanus Canal’s responsible polluters, so the city’s alternative proposal appears to be a way to avoid sticking city taxpayers with a big federal clean-up bill.

In the city’s Gowanus Canal plan, the Army Corps of Engineers would perform the work, cutting the cost to the polluters, a savings that city officials believe will encourage them to come forward without legal action.

“The Army Corps is not [involved] in the Newtown Creek and we don’t have a similar and willing group of potentially responsible parties,” added La Vorgna. “In Gowanus, we have a viable alternative plan that we believe will get the canal just as clean. There isn’t an alternative plan at Newtown Creek.”

Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D–Sunset Park) blasted the city’s “two canals, two plans” strategy.

“Superfund has a proven track record,” she said. “It is unclear why it would be permissible to utilize Superfund for one site, yet oppose using it for the other.”

Velazquez has complained that the city’s Gowanus plan would put that waterway “at the back” of a long list of backlogged environmental clean-ups seeking money under the federal Water Resources Development Act. She has said that Superfund designation would be faster.

An Army Corps official conceded that the priority level of the city’s Gowanus clean-up is up in the air.

“This (plan) would go into an environmental business line and compete with other projects,” said Tom Shea, an official with the Corps’ harbor program. “Where it would rank, I don’t know. I don’t know the parameters for how it is judged.”

Superfund supporter Linda Mariano agreed with Velazquez that the city is trying to have it both ways.

“They resist reality,” said the Gowanus area resident. “It’s all hot air.”

An EPA spokeswoman did not care to comment on the city’s support for the Newtown Creek designation.

— with Stephen Brown and Gary Buiso