A Logical Cycle
At a January 24 meeting in the Miccio Center, there was little of the fanfare that met the same EPA team when it placed the Gowanus Canal on its National Priorities List for toxic remediation more than three years ago. This time, the organization delivered their proposed plan for cleanup of Brooklyn’s densely polluted canal to a skeptical audience of Red Hook residents and activists.
The plan calls for the dredging of over 500,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the bottom of the canal, most of which would be towed away by barges for processing off-site. Using high-powered machines, EPA contractors will excavate and entirely remove the top layer of soft sediment that lies at the canal-bottom.
By doing so, the EPA will remove the canal’s most contaminated material; and although deeper layers of sediment hold pollutants of their own, they are neither as numerous nor as mobile as those in the soft sediment. And by the EPA’s calculation, these lower layers lie at impractical-to-dredge depths.
Instead dredging all layers of polluted sediment—at depths which reach more than 50 feet in some places along the canal—the EPA proposes to “cap” the freshly tilled canal basin. In the areas of most contamination, the EPA will treat and stabilize the contaminants in the deeper sediment before replacing them in the basin as the cap’s base layer. All areas, including those relatively less polluted, will employ a layer a new, clean soil as well as multiple layers of “armor,” composed of rock and gravel. Atop these layers, the canal bottom’s function as a habitat will be restored.
The plan is estimated to cost the EPA half a billion dollars, and about the same for the city and state to maintain. Another core component is holding the city accountable for reducing the influx of new pollutants and combined sewage overflows (CSOs). By cleaning the canal basin and choking off toxins leaking into the Gowanus’ waters, as well as allowing the natural flow of tides to cycle canal water into the Gowanus Bay and greater New York Harbor, the water’s own toxicity will be remediated.
A Polluted Grindstone
Delivered in these broad strokes, the plan was met with little resistance. What failed to pass muster with the Red Hook audience was the EPA’s suggestion that less densely polluted material dredged from the area adjacent to Red Hook be stored and processed within the neighborhood itself. The EPA’s rationale was two-fold: by keeping the treatment process on-site, the EPA can ostensibly provide local jobs at the waste’s confined disposal facility (CDF); and by cutting out transportation to an off-site facility, the EPA can save an additional $37 million.
The community’s questions came in volleys, filtered through the prism of disaster and Hurricane Sandy. Wasn’t the proposed site for the CDF in a flood zone? What kind of health risk does a facility like this pose, placed right next to ball fields where Little Leaguers play; why is the facility being built within a stone’s throw of the thousands of families living within the Red Hook Houses? Wouldn’t a storm similar to Sandy present a double jeopardy of not only fresh debris, but also rampant spatches of contamination in Red Hook?
Finally, if local jobs assisting in the cleanup were the concession for this onus on the community, what specifics could the EPA offer about the work available?
EPA administrator Christos Tsiamis has been tireless in his work while investigating as well as readying the cleanup of the canal. In this meeting, however, he relied on tired assertions of the EPA’s technical and engineering expertise in response to the community’s queries and challenges.
“We’ve been doing this for what, 30 or 40 years?” he asked his colleagues at the front of the room, before answering his own question. “Since the 1970s. The EPA has high standards to uphold, and all work is carried out accordingly.”
Tsiamis—who explained that the CDF was his own idea—labored to construct an appropriate image for the quizzical audience. Essentially, the CDF would treat and envelop the contaminated soil in a giant concrete husk or, as he put it, “a monolith.”
The image was an unpopular one, and a number of community members pounced on it as they voiced their opinions and opposition. Residents of Red Hook refused the reassurances of Tsiamis and his team that the CDF would be safely contained, even in the event of another storm like Sandy. They asked what would happen to the CDF’s concrete vestiges when the EPA work was completed. After being told that the EPA’s contractors would clear their equipment and leave the site empty, they wondered aloud whether the same site could presently be used for something like a community center instead—a development that would supply permanent jobs instead of temporary work afforded by construction.
The EPA’s report, its accompanying presentation and the vagaries of its responses proved similarly monolithic for community members. Their chief concern—the EPA’s proposal for an on-site CDF—is only mentioned on page 23 of the EPA report. In the entire presentation, the name of the man who owns the Red Hook Gowanus Bay Terminal (GBX) site that will be used was not mentioned once. Neither were his previous environmental violations nor the total he stands to collect if plans for the CDF in Red Hook are approved.
After so many audience members’ dissent from the plan, Phaedra Thomas—“yes, I am a paid representative”—of John Quadrozzi, Jr. and his company NYCEMCO took the floor. Instead of naming her client, she appealed to the audience as a Red Hook resident and property owner, saying that Red Hook, and especially its unemployed, stand to gain many employment opportunities if the proposal for the CDF is accepted by the community and New York City’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
In fact, Thomas’s client stands to gain much from acceptance of the proposal. Quadrozzi’s company, which holds the GBX site, will reap Superfund money for taking contaminated material off the hands of EPA contractors. After collecting his payment, Quadrozzi will repurpose the same material. In addition to the monolith, the company will use the stabilized, concrete-enveloped soil to fill the GBX’s waterfront, which will bring into use new swathes of the GBX’s offshore property.
As the Star-Revue reported in July 2012, this would allow bulkheads to be moved into deeper water, allowing larger vessels to dock. Quadrozzi says a massive ship he owns could be turned into a stationary museum, while the rest of the new land could create local business opportunities.
But Thomas’ appeal, in which she neglected to mention either the win-win for Quadrozzi or the money she herself collected for appearing, struck many audience members as disingenuous. Declan Walsh pursued a heated altercation with Thomas even outside the Miccio Center, after the meeting had ended.
“Why come here and misrepresent who you are? Why would you even consider placing a toxic processing plant here?” he pressed her.
Tsiamos’ own remarks remained placatory, and he repeatedly declined to answer questions concerning Quadrozzi’s environmental violations. The violations were earned for illegal dumping of pollutants into the same Gowanus Canal and total nearly $20 million.
“If you don’t want it, that’s it. I won’t push for it personally,” Tsiamis said. “I’ll be frank—everyone is going to be inconvenienced by this in some way,” he said, before reiterating that jobs for the area’s unemployed were what were at stake.
Reflections on Community
The reception at Thursday’s meeting in Red Hook bore a stark contrast with that at the meeting just one evening before, held in Carroll Gardens. In Carroll Gardens, a community that is not hurting for employment and has everything to gain from the cleanup, audience members singled out the EPA for restoring their faith in good government. They heaped Tsiamis and his colleagues with praise for the studiousness with which they crafted their plan.
Some audience members recalled earlier efforts to clean up the canal, which were only headed by the city with recalcitrance. Those efforts proved ineffective because the city was unwilling to spend the vast sums that dredging and capping require. That money will now derive from the pockets of the EPA, but not before it collects coinage from the city. New York City stands legally responsible as one of the chief polluters of the canal for its role in enabling industry at the cost of the surrounding communities—a fact noted by audience members in Carroll Gardens with glee.
In Red Hook, a weary Tsiamis was interrogated by the audience, often tenaciously. He developed a personal tone in his appeal for the plan he claimed for his own. But audience members, perhaps aggravated by the ongoing struggles to rebuild after Sandy, ultimately remained skeptical. The community’s demands focused on greater transparency. They called for a fuller, simpler presentation of what the community stands to gain or to lose by consenting to the CDF at the next public meeting.
Despite, as one audience member put it, Red Hook’s history of airing grievances in forums like the Miccio Center without avail on its priorities, both EPA and New York City elected officials emphasized the need for community members to make their voices heard during the public comment period, which ends March 28.
A special Gowanus Canal Community Advisory Group (CAG) meeting will be held at 6:30 pm, February 11 at PS 58 to discuss the plan with the EPA. Tsiamis personally agreed to offer a clearer explanation of alternatives and what’s at stake with the CDF at this meeting.
The EPA’s proposal can be found online at http://www.EPA.gov/region2/superfund/npl/gowanus and at two information repositories—the Carroll Gardens Library and the Miccio Center. The Red Hook Library, which was affected by Hurricane Sandy, does not house the document.
To submit comments on the EPA’s plan, email Christos Tsiamis at GowanusCanalComments.Region2@epa.gov or mail him at
Central New York Remediation Section
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
290 Broadway, 20th Floor,
New York, NY 10007-1866