The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today declared Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal a Superfund site over the city’s objections and after considering the designation for almost a year.
On a morning conference call with reporters, EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck announced that after holding over 50 meetings with city officials, community leaders and other interested parties, and receiving roughly 1300 public comments, the agency had decided to add the Canal to its National Priorities List (known as the Superfund program).
“We have determined that it is the most efficient and comprehensive cleanup,” Enck said.
The Gowanus Canal, which was built in the 1860s, has long been a heavily polluted industrial waterway, lined by coal manufactured gas plants, oil refineries, chemical plants, paint and ink factories, tanneries, cement makers and machine shops. Dangerous chemicals, coal tar sludge, pesticides, PCBs, and heavy metals are found in abundance in its sediment. Raw sewage and an oily sheen can be seen on its surface.
Superfund gives a federal mandate to the EPA to hold polluters accountable to pay for the cost of the cleanup. The EPA estimates that cleaning the contamination of the Gowanus Canal will cost approximately $300 to $500 million, and could take 10-12 years. Many Superfund sites have taken decades to clean up, due to years of litigation by companies defending against potential responsibility.
“The is not going to happen overnight,” Enck said, but added that it took decades for the Canal to become polluted so a cleanup that lasts one should be reasonable.
The debate in the neighborhood over whether to give the Canal Superfund status had been contentious. The Bloomberg administration had opposed the Superfund designation, claiming it would take too long and drive developers away. The city had instead proposed its own cleanup plan, which it said would not have taken as long due to voluntary agreements with past polluters to cover costs. In addition, it would have utilized funds from the federal Water Resources Development Act. Enck said her agency had concluded that not enough money would be available to take this path. She said there were limited funds available under WRDA and too much uncertainty in requiring annual Congressional approval of federal money.
Walter Mugdan, the Superfund director for the region, said that an agreement has already been reached with one of the potentially responsible parties (PRPs), National Grid, the successor company to Brooklyn Union Gas, which owned three manufactured gas plants along the Canal. Other PRPs include the City of New York, the U.S. Navy, Con Ed, Chemtura Corporation, Rapid American Corporation, Brinks, Beazer East, and Cibro Petroleum Products, with others to be identified in the coming months.
Enck also addressed the suggestion in recent weeks that development would be impeded by the Superfund listing. Pro-development and business groups have claimed that developers with sites within 3,000 feet of the Canal would have difficulty securing private financing and obtaining HUD and FHA-insured loans due to the stigma of a listing. “Unfortunately, there is already a stigma there,” she said. “I reject this as a reason why development can’t move forward.”
The EPA’s announcement clears the way for the next stage of the process to begin. The EPA says it hopes to complete a Remedial Investigation and an Ecological and Risk Assessment by the end of the year.