If all goes according to plan, by 2022 the Gowanus Canal will be a hub for waterfront recreation, clamming and fishing and a pristine spot in the middle of South Brooklyn for nature lovers. The plan is the EPA’s Record of Decision (ROD), a blueprint for the cleanup. In March, 2010, the Gowanus was named a Federal Superfund site, due to the extreme toxicity that the city and state of New York has been unable to mitigate on their own.
The Superfund process is spelled out in the 1980 law which created it. There are six distinct phases that every site goes through. The ROD is the fourth phase – preceded by the Preliminary Assessment/Site Inspection; Site Listing; and Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study (RI/FS). Following the ROD are Remedial Design/Remedial Action (RD/RA) and Construction Completion. The design process is planned for three years, and the actual work will last six.
The ROD was presented this past September 30th, on the banks of the Gowanus in the Lowes parking lot. The next day the EPA shut down, along with much of the rest of the Federal Government. The ROD has been presented to the community in two forums – one in Gowanus and one in Red Hook, on November 13th and 14th. The community group most closely attached to this project is the Gowanus Community Advisory Group (CAG), set up by the EPA but an independent entity. At the October CAG meeting Project Manager Christos Tsiamis reiterated that the ROD is now law. The EPA is the enforcement agency to ensure that the $504 million plan gets done on schedule.
The cost is borne by a group of 29 businesses named by the EPA as Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs). This group has been identified as responsible for the over 150 years of pollution that has tainted this manmade body of water. Some of the entities will simply pay into the cleanup fund, while others, notably National Grid, will be actively involved in planning and hiring the contractors that will do the work. This process is closely supervised by the EPA to make sure that everything is done correctly. In addition to the dredging and capping that compose the clean-up, much attention is also being paid to shutting down the processes that continue to pollute the canal. This includes erecting barrier walls to prevent adjacent toxic areas from leaching poisons in the waterway, and most important, stopping, or at least lessening the sewage overflows that continually introduce human and manufacturing wastes into the canal.
A look at the responses received during the Public Commentary period (Star-Revue, October 2013) reveals that National Grid is especially concerned about re-pollution of the canal. This is a natural concern, as they have a proprietary interest in making sure that the money they pay to clean the canal is not wasted. The second largest PRP is the City of New York, a continuing critic of the Superfund designation. They claimed that the designation would hold back development adjacent to the Canal, and that planned improvements, including sewer upgrades and bioswales would do the EPA’s work. However, that proved wrong on both counts, as the Lighthouse Group is preparing 700 apartments adjacent to the Canal, and the city’s plans were found to only reduce sewage overflows by 34% – insufficient to continue degrading the ecology. Most likely the City is unhappy to bear this expense.
The ROD is very similar to the initial plans presented to the community in December 2011 and 2012. At least five feet of sludge will be dredged out of the canal, detoxified and sent out of state for disposal. A tiered layer will be placed on the new bed to prevent remaining poisons from leaching upward. Bulkheads, which may be damaged during the dredging, will be cleaned and rebuilt – in most cases maintaining their historical integrity.
Debris in the canal, which include at least two sunken ships, will be removed. A turning basin – an offshoot of the main waterway – that was filled in around 5th Street and 3rd Avenue will be restored. The ROD demands two giant containers – called retention tanks -be built. One will hold eight million gallons of sewage, the other, four million. The EPA suggested that these be placed under the Double D park, at Third Avenue between Douglass and Degraw Streets. Much of the Gowanus community voiced complaints about this. The EPA’s response was that this was only a suggestion, they don’t care where the containers are placed, only that they are placed somewhere. The purpose of these containers is to act as holding tanks for sewage. What happens now is that in heavy rainstorms, raw sewage is dumped into the canal instead of sent to either the Red Hook or Owl’s Creek sewage treatment plans. This plan will keep the sewage from the canal, directing them to the treatment plants as soon as the sewer capacity can handle it.
There are two main differences between the ROD and the previously proposed plan. One is the revival of the 5th Street Turning Basin. In that case, the EPA responded to a suggestion. The other is the decision not to use dredged material from part of the canal to create landfill. This 10 acres of was to be added to the property of the Gowanus Bay Terminal (GBX). The GBX is a privately owned parcel which includes the NYC Grain Terminal building. The EPA had said that this option would be chosen subject to community desires, and the Red Hook community made their opposition clear at public forums as well as letters and emails to the EPA.
There are still decisions to be made. One that might involve Red Hook is the process of “dewatering.” Barges are used to dig up the sludge. As it was deemed impractical to drain the canal, the sludge will be waterlogged. The water adds much weight, and so it traditionally is separated from the sludge and treated separately. One option is to squeeze water out of the sludge on the barges, and pouring it off through hoses into waiting trucks. Another option is to dewater on land. On page 85 of the ROD it is written: “A temporary on-Site facility may be necessary for dewatering, water treatment and/or transfer of dredged sediments. To the extent practicable, such operations may take place on barges.
GBX, which lies at the foot of the canal, opposite the Red Hook ballfields, might be used for this facility. One of the reasons that NYC used to plague Red Hook with Waste Transfer Facilities was it’s proximity to the waterfront. Garbage is collected at the facility and then loaded onto waiting barges for transport out of state. The sludge would be treated the same way. Despite the decision not to create landfill for GBX, their representatives continue to be seen at EPA events, and one contract employee recently applied for, and was granted CAG membership.
The ROD takes into consideration future Gowanus development. It mandates that all development activities take care not to introduce new pollution into the Canal. Asked about this at the recent CAG meeting, Tsiamis explained that a harsh enforcement mechanism exists and will be used. The EPA will continue to monitor the Canal even after the construction is completed. Any entity that is found polluting the Canal, such as the Lightstone apartments, and any future project, will be named a PRP, and will become financially responsible for the cleanup and future maintenance. This of course is a severe financial penalty, providing a huge incentive for following the law.
The ROD, and it’s many pages of ancillary documents, is available to the public on the Gowanus EPA website, easily found by googling. The plan is ambitious, and barring dismantling of the EPA by some future Federal government, will be done. The EPA will be open to continuing community input during the construction phase, both through the CAG meetings, which are open to the public, and direct comment to their team. Natalie Loney, Community Involvement Coordinator, is readily available by phone or email. Her number, available on the website, is (212) 637-3639.