At a public meeting held April 16th at the South Brooklyn Community High School, Regional Superfund Director Walter Mugdan repeated multiple times that the proposed plan to bury toxic sludge from the Gowanus in Red Hook would never happen. “How many times do you want me to say it? If we don’t have your acceptance – and it seems evident that we do not – as I’ve said, the disposal of the facility in a CDF ain’t gonna happen. Because we asked for the community’s reaction. And we’re hearing it,” he insisted.
While the official result of the public comment period, which ended April 27th, will not be known for several months, Mugdan stated over and over and over again that the EPA understands the Red Hook community is not in favor of depositing the Gowanus’ residue in the neighborhood. This option was always subject to community approval, as well as the approval of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
Ironically, this all took place at a meeting orchestrated by Reg Flowers, who has made his name recently as a community facilitator in forums as diverse as Occupy Red Hook and the NYC Housing Authority. While ostensibly assuming a neutral position, he has been linked with John Quadrozzi Jr., whose private company would be the main beneficiary if the Red Hook Option were to be approved.
Public comment period over
The end of the public comment period represents the end of what became a painful process, because the forces in favor of private gain sought to divide the Red Hook community, pitting jobs against pollution.On one side stood Red Hook residents who in the wake of Superstorm Sandy were fearful of encased toxic sludge escaping and adding to the contamination of Red Hook’s soil and air. On the other side was a landowner who would be the recipient of a gift of 450,000 square feet of new land – a gift worth upwards of $1 billion, according to Brooklyn Greenway Initiative co-founder Brian McCormick.
Despite a slew of public meetings, newspaper articles and an informative EPA website, much misinformation and lack of information has clouded the argument, pro and con, in the mind of the average Red Hooker.
Mugdan worked hard at the April 16th meeting to frame the issues correctly. Currently, what was open for public comment was the proposal to bury the sludge on the property of Quadrozzi, owner of the Erie Grain Terminal and the land around it, called Gowanus GBX. Further issues will be decided in the future, including something called de-watering of the sludge. The $500 million dollar plan to clean up the Gowanus is still in the early planning stages. Dewatering and other issues will be part of the continuing public monitoring process – but what was asked initially has been only whether the sludge will become part of the Gowanus GBX. It’s approval has nothing at all to do with cleaning up – a job tasked the EPA in 2010, when the Gowanus was designated a Federal Superfund site.
Much to the chagrin of the Bloomberg administration, which was keen on a quick local cleanup that would benefit the Toll Brother’s plan to build luxury housing adjacent to the canal, the Gowanus received the designation in March of 2010. Following initial testing, a Remedial Investigation Report was issued in January 2011. The Feasibility Study was issued in January 2011, and the Proposed Plan in December, 2012.
Christos Tsiamis, a chemical engineer with a masters from Columbia University was named the project director in March 2010. The idea of creating the Confined Disposal Facility (CDF) as an alternative to shipping the sludge out-of-state is his. The EPA has created CDF’s before, most notably in cleanups of the Great Lakes, specifically Waukegon Harbor, an hour north of Chicago. That CDF houses PCB contaminated sludge. It’s creation benefits Illinois taxpayers, and the land created is public land.
According to the EPA’s Natalie Lowney, the only possible placement of a local CDF is above water owned by private citizen Quadrozzi. The new land would be his property; it’s use would be legally subject only to certain restrictions that maintain the integrity of the cement encasement of the sludge. As is EPA custom, this plan is subject to public approval.
With the publication of the plan in December, two public meetings were scheduled for January 2013 – one in Carroll Gardens and one in Red Hook. The first glimmerings of negative public opinion were evident at the January 23rd meeting at NYCHA’s Miccio Center. While the EPA was generally applauded at the PS 58 meeting a few days earlier by Carroll Gardens residents, Christos and Lowney were severely grilled about the prospects of burying sludge in Red Hook – especially in close proximity to the ballfields and Red Hook Houses. Towards the end of the meeting, Phaedra Thomas, without initially identifying herself as an employee of Gowanus GBX, spoke glowingly of Quadrozzi, and the CDF option, until she was outed as a GBX employee by Declan Walsh and others in the audience.
A month later there was a special public meeting of the Gowanus Community Action Group (CAG) which was also advertised in the local newspapers. The CAG is a group set up by the EPA at every Superfund project consisting of local stakeholders. The Gowanus CAG was organized in October 2010. It meets regularly and provides a forum for the community to express it’s concerns to the EPA, and for the EPA to update the community on its progress.
Members of the CAG include representatives from the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, The Carroll Gardens Neighborhood Association, CB6, the Park Slope Civic Council, the Red Hook Civic Association, the Sierra Club, Gowanus Dredgers, Proteus Gowanus, Fifth Avenue Committee and the Cobble Hill Association. Representatives from the Red Hook Houses East and West, namely Dorothy Shields and Lillien Marshall, are original members, but until recently were rarely in attendance.
Red Hook residents wary
The complaints expressed by residents at the January meeting were mild in comparison to the February 13th public CAG meeting held in the PS 15 auditorium. A February edition of the Star-Revue described some of the back and forth:
“You’re very intelligent, but you repeat yourself a lot,” Red Hook resident Christopher Morson told Project Manager Christos Tsiamis, who designed the plan, delivered the presentation and has been one of its chief advocates.
“I know it’s all business, it’s all money” said Morson, referring to the $37 million that would be saved by responsible parties like the city and National Grid if waste is dumped in the Red Hook landfill instead of being shipped away—like sludge with higher toxicity adjacent to neighborhoods like Carroll Gardens.”
CB 6 District Manager Craig Hammerman commented on the idea of giving GBX the authority to determine future use of the landfill. He said “I think it’s quite telling that the question of the private property owner’s fitness with regard to environmental violations doesn’t seem to be an issue for the EPA,” he said. “There are a lot of unanswered questions. It seems like a lot of discretion will be given to the private property owner, so that’s something we all need to consider as a community.”
The Star-Revue article continued: “Quadrozzi’s friends appeared to number few in PS 15 on February 13, where he attended. Accordingly, EPA Community Involvement Coordinator Natalie Loney suggested the EPA’s view that ‘the trend is that the community does not want this.”
Quadrozzi and Thomas were present at this meeting and both made public statements, stressing the jobs that would be created if the proposal survived public scrutiny.
Jobs are an issue that has been used to divide Red Hook before. One part of Red Hook contains public housing, where unemployment is generally upwards of 25%. Another part consists of homeowners and businesses. To these residents, quality of life is also important. Red Hook declined after highways were built blocking off Red Hook from the rest of Brooklyn. Jobs left as transportation to and from Red Hook became more difficult, and also as a result of the decline of the shipping and warehousing industries locally. A big local employer, H. Kohnstamm & Co., located adjacent to the Houses in back of Lorraine Street, shut down in the late 1970’s.
During the local debates on the location of both Fairway and IKEA, jobs were dangled to Red Hook Houses residents to gain their support. Beginning at least as far back as a March 22nd 2012 EPA meeting at the Miccio Center the prospect of a relatively small number of temporary jobs were teasingly placed before the community. At various times the Quadrozzi publicity machine has presented various plans for the community, including jobs, public parks, community spaces. John McGettrick characterized their shifting landscape of ideas as “whatever they think will fly at the time.”
Perhaps realizing that the tide had turned against them, the Quadrozzi GBX publicity machine cranked into full force with an April 1st meeting they arranged at the Miccio Center. This followed the appearance throughout the community of posters urging residents to “Tell the EPA NO to a Toxic Red Hook.” These posters were the work of local artist and mother Carly Yates, who held weekly meetings to discuss the Quadrozzi proposal at Bait and Tackle, creating the posters and a website in March to encourage residents to let the EPA know how they felt about the proposal.
The April 1st meeting was not attended by the EPA. Experts were brought forth stressing the safety of the CDF option, with Quadrozzi and Thomas filling out the rest of the meeting. Questions from the small audience were held to a minimum.
Phaedra Thomas spoke for about 15 minutes, stressing jobs and job training that the project would allegedly provide. She interlaced the 30-60 jobs that the Red Hook Option might provide with the 500 jobs that the entire Gowanus cleanup would provide. Being as this was a forum ostensibly created to promote the GBX option – not the Superfund cleanup in general – the implication was that one was dependent on the other, which is untrue. In the brief Q & A that followed the prepared presentation, some audience members echoed that confusion, which was purposefully allowed to linger.
Turning over the microphone to her boss, John Quadrozzi Jr., Phaedra called him a man she could trust, someone she has known since 2000 when they worked together on an anti-dumping crusade in Red Hook. Quadrozzi described the history of the family property that was purchased in 1997. He erroneously described the 1922 Grain Terminal as a success. In fact it was a failed attempt to revive Red Hook’s grain handling business. The important piece of the presentation was a precise depiction of the potential landfill. When asked, Quadrozzi offered that it consisted of 450,000 square feet of land created from his underwater property. Adjacent to the Henry Street Basin and abutting Columbia Street, he proposed usage of the new land as a break-bulk facility, a tidal wetlands park and a museum composed of a rusty ship that he owns.
Reg Flowers raised his hand to speak and announced that he had “recently gotten to know Mr. Quadrozzi, and found that he was not a bad guy. Mr. Quadrozzi is not the devil.”
Flowers is a Yale graduate and founder of Falconworks, an “organization whose mission is to empower communities and individuals through theater,” as described on their website. They present a series called “Off The Hook,” in which aspiring playwrites under the age of 14 write and act in their own plays.
While claiming to have only recently gotten to know Quadrozzi, Flowers registered a website called RedHookVision.com on May 25, 2012. Half of the website is devoted the possible future use of GBX. It says:
“GBX – a property that includes the grain elevators near the Red Hook ball fields – is being considered by the EPA to create a Confined Disposal Facility (CDF). The CDF would be created on GBX property, under water, essentially increasing the size of the property’s upland area, with dredge from the Gowanus Canal. The EPA is still deciding how they will handle the Gowanus clean-up and they are taking comments and concerns from residents on a regular basis in the coming months, with a proposed remediation plan to be released at the end of July 2012.”
“GBX is controlled by local businessman and resident John Quadrozzi, Jr. who is inviting Red Hook to the table to create a framework for developing new sustainable industrial businesses that can help Red Hook grow into a greener future. The scope of visioning is public amenities, specifically developing an eco-industrial park, exploring waste-to-energy, increased maritime operations, beneficial reuse material manufacturing and distribution and a Waterfront Park & Maritime Museum with both community and commercial space aboard the M/V Loujaine – similar to Manhattan’s Intrepid Museum, but with an apropos cargo ship commensurate to the Brooklyn Industrial Waterfront.”
Many in the community were surprised to hear that Flowers, who has been associated with Occupy Red Hook, would ally himself with a private developer looking to benefit from the disposal of toxic waste in the Red Hook community.
It was revealed shortly after Reg’s public support of Quadrozzi that the next Falconworks production would be an Ibsen play supported in part by John Quadrozzi, performed on space donated by GBX.
On April 9th, an email was sent out by Flowers announcing a new April 16th community meeting. It read, “Even with all the meetings, signs, petitions and conversations on the street, you may still be in search of answers and wondering why you should be for or against certain parts of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plan. Join community members, the Gowanus Canal Community Advisory Group, and reps from the EPA to get clear on the positions, ask questions, and discuss the Gowanus, the history of local polluting, and our role in caring for the environment.”
The meeting was an attempt to show the EPA that there was indeed community support for the Red Hook Option. It was ultimately a failed attempt, as speaker after speaker got up to show their opposition to the plan – much to the chagrin of an unsmiling Flowers. EPA Regional Head, Walter Mugdan repeated over and over that this option would not be chosen, as it was evidently not supported by the community. Quadrozzi himself sat patiently through the meeting with his wife, before finally getting up. Upon leaving he muttered something about ‘stupid people’ which Bea Byrd took issue with, and a shouting match ensued.
Lou Sones, of Groups Against Garbage Sites, a community group he founded in the 1990’s to harness community support against the locating of waste transfer facilities throughout Red Hook, read a forceful letter which included the following:
“With all due respect, There is a serious lack of trust in the owner of and lobbyist for this site. They have floated 3 different drafts of what they propose. Every time the community finds dangerous flaws in their proposals, they change the proposal to placate the concerns. This moving target leads to more distrust. What this pattern says to the community is that they’ll say anything and then do whatever they want. Why in their second proposal do they proudly announce that they would convert waste to energy and oddly enough a study was done by Columbia University on the feasibility of importing tons of putrescible garbage (that’s the stinky stuff) a day to burn at the Quadrozzi site. But when the community (excuse the play on words) got wind of it, it was no longer mentioned or addressed.
Whatever they build on this site from concrete plants to asphalt plants or a garbage burning facility, will bring increased truck traffic to a park. GBX has told us on many occasions that they have the right of way to build whatever the zoning allows. That might be true, but we don’t want to give them more land mass to facilitate them doing it.”
Yet despite this public relations disaster, the Quadrozzi publicity machine was not yet finished. Six days later, just five days before the end of the public comment period, they unveiled a website http://www.yesnontoxicredhook.com and distributed posters designed to look like the No Toxic Red Hook posters, but with the opposite message. The website opens up to a letter written on the stationery of what seems to be a newly minted organization called “Red Hook Houses Community Action Coalition.”
The letter is addressed to Christos Tsiamis and forwarded to a host of local and state politicians. It is signed by Ray Hall and also by Dorothy Shields and Lillie Marshall, presidents of the Red Hook East and West Resident Associations, Ray’s brother Earl Hall and Mickey Reid and Anthony Watson, vice presidents of the tenant organizations. It reads, in part:
“Our organizations have joined together in an act of solidarity to fight for the Red Hook Option because people from the ‘back’ of Red Hook, many of whom own their own homes, have organized an outspoken and misguided campaign against it. The group Does Not represent the majority of Red Hook, and to the contrary, represents the minority. Their campaign has involved misrepresentations and lies about the nature and safety of the Red Hook Option. The ‘No Toxic Red Hook’ literature and website have robbed many of our residents’ right to factual information, self-determination and the pursuit of bettering their own community. There was a bright orange sign illegally posted on every one of our buildings’ doors saying “Toxic Sludge Coming to Red Hook?” At public meetings where residents came to hear your Agency’s proposal, hecklers and ill-mannered speakers scared our residents away from even daring to ask any normal questions about the activities that will be involved in the Red Hook Option.
We IMPLORE you not to allow this small, yet politically savvy, overly empowered elitist group to dictate the future of our community. Some people have just joined into the mob mentality, lighting the torches of out of misplaced fear. But the leaders, who know the project is perfectly safe, but are using this as an opportunity get renewed name recognition and to stop ANY growth of industry and the jobs industry provides, are guilty of orchestrating a great social injustice on a community that desperately needs the real opportunities that a project like this would afford our residents.”
The next paragraph claims that there hasn’t been any real dialogue between the residents of the EPA and tenants of the Red Hook Houses. In fact, there have been many community meetings held in Red Hook, both by the EPA and by the project’s supporters, as detailed in this article. It claims that elected officials have also been left out of “real dialogue,” despite the fact that Nydia Velazquez herself brought the EPA to Wyckoff Gardens for a recent meeting, and Brad Lander has been part of the process from the very beginning. He has come out with a statement in support of the community, reading as follows:
“I do not support the location of a confined disposal facility in Red Hook for the disposal of contaminated material. While I appreciate the desire to leverage the cleanup for local jobs, it appears to me that the strong majority of Red Hook residents who have engaged in this process are opposed to the proposal, and do not believe that the benefits for the community outweigh the risks. If they do not want to make this trade-off, I believe we should respect their wishes.”
Hall’s letter then talks about Quadrozzi, who Phaedra Thomas has publicly called “a shining light in the community.” He writes:
“There has been a deliberate attack on John Quadrozzi, Jr.’s character which has also been appalling. We have known and worked with John for over 10 years. We know him to be an active Advocate for a cleaner environment, not an environmental criminal. Not only did he clean up his own property (which was the center of all negative activity in Red Hook in the 80’s and 90’s), he has always worked on improving and cleaning ALL of Red Hook. He has sponsored greening initiatives, fought illegal dumping with a personal partnership with the NY Department of Sanitation Police, and insists on impeccable cleanliness from his tenants at the Terminal. John has Always delivered on his word including delivering turkeys on thanksgiving, presents on Christmas, horses on National Night Out Against Crime, basketballs and books for Summer programs, and countless other acts of charity and partnership. John always hires Red Hook Houses residents, and prides himself on providing opportunities for people to better their lives through honest work. We look forward to working with Mr. Quadrozzi on this exciting project and know that you can have full confidence that he will continue his stellar record of being a great neighbor and friend to all of Red Hook’s residents.”
Martha Bowers, Founder and Executive Director of Red Hook’s Dance, Theater Etcetera is one of the recipients of Quadrozzi’s largesse. Phaedra Thomas sits on the DTE board. In a phone interview, Bowers called Quadrozzi a “long time supporter of ours.” She continued, “He has always been very interested in supporting the youth portions of our events.” DTE holds in annual Red Hook Fest weekend, which this year is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary. This two-day event, which this year takes place on May 30th and June 1st, presents world class dance events, as well as a performance by their own students, many of them from Red Hook. It is a well loved and this year bring back the Earth and Surf parade.
DTE presented a community service award to Quadrozzi in 2010. Bowers is a friend of Phaedra Thomas, and stated that “it would be hard for me to believe that she would get involved in something that would not be good for the community.” However, when asked for her personal position on the GBX plan, she deferred, saying that she did not have enough information to be for or against it.
While posters, websites, meetings and other types of publicity are all components of a publicity campaign, the question remains why it was started so late in the game. And why did the team of John Quadrozzi, Phaedra Thomas, Reg Flowers, Ray and Earl Hall and Lillie Marshall and Dorothy Shields choose the strategy of attempting to play the different sides of Red Hook against each other, especially after the unifying role that Hurricane Sandy played.