From: David Gabel, ENN
Published March 9, 2010 03:57 PM

Gowanus Canal goes Superfund

Last week, the Gowanus Canal, a 1.8-mile, 100-foot wide waterway in northwest Brooklyn which empties into Upper New York Bay, was added to the National Priorities List (NPL) otherwise known Superfund by the Environmental Protection Agency. The new designation means that the EPA will now move ahead to clean up this derelict canal and to compel PRP's (principal responsible parties) to perform the cleanup or reimburse the government for EPA-led action.

The EPA is now locked in to what may be a tough and perhaps a long dragged-out process of restoring the Gowanus, while forcing cooperation from PRP’s and catering to often sensitive local community interests.


The history of the Gowanus Canal dates back to the industrial revolution of the 19th century. During colonial times, it was a simple creek used to power Dutch grist mills. However, as the population grew with the industrial revolution in the 19th century, there became a need for larger navigation capacity and more docking facilities.

The New York Legislature authorized the construction of the Gowanus Canal in 1849 by dredging the Gowanus Creek so to be deep enough for larger vessels. The new canal quickly became the central hub for Brooklyn's burgeoning maritime and manufacturing industries. Its sides were populated with factories, warehouses, tanneries, coal stores, and chemical and gas refineries.

Unfortunately, there were no environmental regulations at the time. Municipal and industrial sewage was discharged directly into the canal, and storm water runoff also drained into the canal, carrying with it heavy metal toxins such as mercury and lead, as well as oil and coal tar, and serious organic contaminants called polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB's.

Gradually, the busy industrial facilities along the canal collapsed in the late 20th century, leaving behind a toxic legacy. The opaqueness of the water prohibits aquatic plant growth and overabundant nutrient loadings have caused eutrophication, or de-oxygenation, limiting fish life. Fishing and swimming in the canal are a cause of public health concern due to the environmental degradation. Who wants to eat a fish contaminated with PCB's and heavy metals anyway?

The new Superfund status bestowed upon the canal will mean a serious project will be underway to restore its waters to conditions suitable for human use. However, the EPA decision was not without controversy and contentious debate. The Bloomberg administration has fought hard to oppose the designation, arguing that legal battles could erupt with PRP's, delaying the dredging operation. Also, they are worried that prospective developers will be leery of building in an area with the stigma of being a Superfund site.

The city believes it can achieve the same results without Superfund through an integrative and comprehensive approach.

The EPA has held a series of town-hall style meetings with local community groups, city officials, developers, and others. While most residents supported the cleanup, many were worried that the end result would mean higher property values, gentrification, and causing many of the poorer residents to move out. One developer, Toll Brothers, said it would scrap its $250 million project that would include 450 housing units and retail space by the canal. On the other hand, another developer, Gowanus Green, said it would move forward with its $300 million project that would include 774 housing units in nine buildings that would be mostly financed by the city.

EPA administrator for the region, Judith Enck, believes that the Superfund designation would guarantee the best results for residents and their environmental health. She also noted that PRP’s would cover the cost. The EPA predicts the project will last 10 to 12 years and cost between $300-$500 million. A list of PRP's who would have been identified include the US Navy and seven companies including Consolidated Edison and National Grid.

Sampling and environmental assessments are already underway. According to the EPA's timetable, a full cleanup plan should be drafted by 2014, and the actual work would take at least five years. Other actions would include eliminating sources of further contamination from sewage overflow as well as the movement of underground contamination beneath old industrial sites by groundwater into the canal.

The city should prepare itself for what promises to be an ugly and slow moving process. PRP's usually don’t contribute to Superfund cleanups without a fight and the EPA will surely have its hands full in the courts. However, the EPA has been through this before and will ultimately achieve its objective of creating a cleaner Gowanus Canal to the benefit of Brooklyn residents and New York City.

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