Flushing the Gowanus

Flushing the Gowanus

In recent months, signs have popped up in the windows of townhouses and storefronts from Carroll Gardens to Park Slope. On them, a blue whale spouts a plume of heart-shaped water, the copy below declaring: “Gowanus Canal/Super Fund Me.” Many locals, it would appear, are hoping the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will make good on its April announcement that it was considering naming the canal a Superfund site.

It may not come to that, however, as the city, fearing the stultifying effects Superfund status could have on development in the area, has rushed to create its own plan for cleaning up the canal, which Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg unveiled Friday at a press conference at a pump house on the banks of the Gowanus. “This is just the beginning of a process of cleanup that will go much quicker than three years of fighting through the Superfund process,” Bloomberg told reporters.

The city’s plan, which was developed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has two components: three capital projects to improve current mitigation measures and a city-run program that would get polluters to pitch in on cleanup, a strategy the city considers less acrimonious than the litigation-driven Superfund program.

The largest of the capital programs, which will be paid for with $150 million in existing city capital funds, is the installation of four new pumps to handle combined sewer overflows during storms. The pumps will increase storm water capacity from 20 million gallons per day to 30 million, helping to keep sewage-tainted water out of the canal. A new mile-long pipe will connect to a pollution treatment center in Red Hook to help clean the water. Both systems will reduce combined sewer overflows into the canal by 34 percent.

The other major investment is in a century-old water tunnel that pumps in fresh water from Buttermilk Channel to help improve the canal’s water quality and mitigate sewage and other pollutants. The single water pump, which broke down in the 1960s and was not replaced until 1999, will be replaced by three new pumps, boosting fresh water in the canal by 40 percent, from 154 million gallons per day to 215 million. Finally, the top 750 feet of the canal will be dredged, as the area is sometimes exposed during high tide, giving off noxious odors as a result.

But these are only mitigation measures. The real problem comes from the decades of pollution and contamination from the factories, cement plants, refineries, and runoff along the two-mile canal. To address these issues, the city has devised the second component of its plan—what it is calling the “alternative cleanup plan.” It calls for using the federal Water Resources Development Act, which provides matching funds to responsible parties for helping cleanse the canal. Bloomberg said companies would be eager to help because it “settles once and for all their liabilities” without resorting to court cases. There is no timeline yet, but the mayor said the cleanup could be completed within a decade from its start, “a relatively short time for these sorts of things.”

This alternative plan [PDF] would deploy a range of measures to clean up the canal, from addressing runoff from upland polluters to dredging and capping the canal bed, shoring up crumbling bulkheads, and planting decontaminating flora and fauna—all of which would be paid for by polluters and the federal government, and not the city.

But the key to staving off Superfund may be the city’s willingness to give the EPA an oversight role, including the right to step in if the city’s efforts prove insufficient. It was unclear how standards would be set or met between the city and the agency, but the mayor stressed that it was preferable to the decades it could take to get a cleanup underway with the Superfund program, killing various development projects and a neighborhood rezoning in the process.

The EPA is currently reviewing the city’s plan. Repeated calls to the agency for comment were not returned, but a decision about designating the canal a Superfund site is expected sometime this fall.

Joseph Seebode, deputy district engineer of the Army Corps’ New York District, said the main difference between the city and the EPA’s approach was one of restoration versus remediation—gradual improvement versus top-down containment. “What the EPA is doing is, they’re looking at this in a different way,” Seebode told AN. While the city and the Corps would allow for development and activity concurrent with cleanup, the EPA would shut everything down. Seebode declined to say which was the safer approach, only that all avenues have to be studied.

Asked if the city would have undertaken the plan were it not faced with the impending threat of the canal being named a Superfund site, Bloomberg admitted the city should have taken action sooner, but at least it was making an honest effort to clean the canal quickly and thoroughly, unlike the EPA.

There has been some speculation that the city has taken such swift action because it could be found liable under the Superfund program—not only because of sewage outflows but because of city-owned polluters such as a Department of Transportation cement plant—though the mayor insisted that was not the case. “When these lawyers start, everyone’s going to point fingers,” Bloomberg said. “It’s going to be a boon for the lawyers, but nothing will get done environmentally.”

But Richard Bashner, chair of local Community Board 6, told AN that so long as the canal gets clean, he does not care who is responsible for it. “At this point, we’re delighted to see the mayor and the EPA fighting over who gets to clean up the canal,” he said.