City Proposes New Plan for Gowanus Canal Cleanup
The canal is contaminated with pollutants that include pesticides and metals, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Fighting to prevent the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn from being labeled a Superfund site, city officials are proposing an alternative cleanup plan that they say would still be overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency but would take only about half the time a Superfund project would require.
A Superfund designation, reserved for the country’s most hazardous sites, allows the government to pursue parties responsible for the pollution and require them to pay for the removal of hazards.
In April the E.P.A. proposed adding the Gowanus Canal to its Superfund National Priorities List at the urging of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. In a preliminary assessment the agency found that the site was contaminated by a variety of pollutants as a result of the waterway’s industrial past, including pesticides, metals and cancer-causing chemicals called PCBs.
But officials in the Bloomberg administration argued that a Superfund designation could set off legal battles with the polluters and defer completion of the cleanup for decades. They also warned that the label could scare away developers and stigmatize an area the city had planned to rezone for new residential and commercial uses.
They proposed an alternative approach that the E.P.A. has sometimes used that would allow polluters to voluntarily pay for the cleanup under binding agreements. To help bring them to the table, the officials said, the Army Corps of Engineers could complete a feasibility study it has already begun that calls for the corps’s own environmental restoration project at the canal. Such an effort would be eligible for separate federal funding and could reduce the ultimate price tag for the polluters.
The officials estimated the cleanup could be completed in 9 ½ years under this alternate plan.
“This isn’t a ‘trust us’ scenario,” said Cas Holloway, chief of staff to Deputy Mayor Ed Skyler and a special adviser to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. “The goal is to have a Superfund-quality cleanup faster than the Superfund.”
But E.P.A. officials, who estimate the cost of the Gowanus cleanup at $300 million to $400 million, said the city’s plan relies on federal allocations that may not be forthcoming and adds to an already complicated process by having both the corps and the E.P.A. tackle parts of the cleanup.
In addition, said Walter Mugdan, director of the E.P.A.’s Superfund division for the New York region, the proposed alternative approach most often involves cases with only one responsible party. In the Gowanus case, he said, there are multiple parties — at least 10 to a dozen, he said — who are less likely to reach agreement easily on one another’s liability.
“We’re concerned about the viability of the city’s plan,” Mr. Mugdan said.
The E.P.A. is accepting public comments on the proposed Superfund designation until July 8 before making a decision on the listing, which has split residents of the canal’s neighboring communities. At public meetings, many have expressed support for a comprehensive federal cleanup but some said they worried about a possible drop in property values and the scuttling of development plans already under way in the area.
In recent months, the mayor’s office has been trying to drum up support for its proposal in meetings with neighbors and local businesses and in presentations to federal and state environmental officials, who are still pushing for a Superfund designation but want to give the city a fair hearing.
“While D.E.C. remains committed to a Superfund cleanup, the city has made a presentation to us regarding its proposed alternative and we are reviewing it,” said Yancey Roy, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
By MIREYA NAVARRO