Comment on the EPA’s Proposed Plan for the Gowanus Canal

Comment on the EPA’s Proposed Plan for the Gowanus Canal

EPA and Councilmember Lander staff test canal after Hurricane Sandy

For many years, cleaning up the Gowanus Canal has been a high priority for our community – but one that seemed hopelessly far away.  With the EPA’s proposed cleanup plan, and I am thrilled to see that day getting much closer.  I am enthusiastic about the EPA’s Proposed Plan and believe that it puts forward the right steps:

  • removing some contaminated sediment from the bottom of the canal;
  • stabilizing that contaminated material off-site and identifying a beneficial use for it;
  • stabilizing NAPL-contaminated sediment in place; and
  • capping dredged areas with layers of clean material.

I agree with the EPA’s preference for a remedy that would: restore canal bottom as a natural habitat, provide for appropriate water depths to support current navigation uses, and allow for future maintenance of the remedy and canal infrastructure, including bulkheads.

I am pleased that the EPA’s Proposed Plan calls for implementing stormwater runoff control measures to significantly reduce the amount of combined sewer overflows (CSOs) deposited in the Gowanus – so that the canal is not recontaminated after dredging is complete. I share the widely-held goal of improving water quality to a standard that supports the canal’s current uses, including contact recreation for children and families.  We must work together to realize that goal to the greatest extent possible under CERCLA, and also through the Long Term Control Plan under the Clean Water Act.

To that end, I was encouraged to see that the EPA and DEC are “committed to work together throughout the development of the remedial design and the contemporaneous Long Term Control Plan development process to ensure that both the Superfund and CWA goals are met in a timely, cost-effective manner.”  I hope this spirit of collaboration can be even further extended – to include not only dredging and water quality improvements, but also bulkheads, shorelines, and wetlands restoration, and to include the City of New York, the Army Corps of Engineers, and other relevant public and private partners.

There are, of course, many important questions that will need to be answered during the three-year design phase:  Where will the on-site dewatering and transfer of dredged sediments will take place?  Who will operate the facility?  Where will off-site stabilization and beneficial use take place?  Where will staging areas be located?  Where will CSO controls (e.g. in-line storage tanks) be sited?

These decisions will have a meaningful impact on the surrounding community.  I have been very encouraged by the EPA’s extensive community outreach to date.  The Gowanus Canal Superfund process has been one of the best examples of community engagement in public decision-making that I have seen in my time as an elected official (a remarkable feat for such a complex and technical issue).  I am optimistic that the EPA will continue to work closely with, reach out regularly, and listen closely to community stakeholders as these subsequent decisions are made, and I urge them to do so. 

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.

The users and neighbors of Thomas Greene Park and the Douglass-Degraw Pool have also expressed concern about the potential loss of this well-used community space should an in-line storage tank be sited there.  Before any final decisions are made, we would need extensive conversation and further details about the proposal, the process, and the risks that would be involved.

In addition, my office is partnering with the New York City Department of Sanitation and the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, with the support of Councilmember Stephen Levin and Councilmember Sara González, to construct a community composting system on the “Salt Lot,” a City-owned property located at 2nd Avenue and 5th Street—another potential location for an in-line storage tank. This innovative project won funding through the first participatory budgeting vote in District 39 and will turn one ton per day of food waste into usable compost. We are currently working with the project partners to finalize the design of the composting facility and anticipate that construction will begin this summer, pending regulatory approval.  Again, before any final decisions are made about the siting of an in-line storage tank, we would need many more details about the proposal, and what the impacts would be.

In order to move forward, many different entities will need to work closely together to make the best decisions about remediation across environmental and regulatory domains, achieve the most effective use of public investments, and bring about a comprehensive cleanup. I was pleased to see the EPA’s commitment in the Proposed Plan to coordinate with other government agencies to ensure the best cleanup possible.  This includes working closely with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) on the remediation of contaminated upland sites, especially the three manufactured gas plants.  There is also strong interest in how standards for bulkhead replacement and maintenance will be promulgated, including bulkhead height and design, where soft edges are possible, and where wetlands could be restored.

This is an important moment for Gowanus – and one we need to build upon. The EPA’s Proposed Plan is a major step toward a cleaner community, but there is more that needs to be done. As made painfully clear during Hurricane Sandy, we need to make difficult but important decisions about public investment in sustainable infrastructure and flood mitigation measures to protect our neighborhoods. I believe we need to move forward together, with all stakeholders at the table, to develop a comprehensive plan for the infrastructure, amenities, and land use regulations needed for a safe, vibrant, and sustainable Canal area.  In the coming months, I will be working with other elected officials and reaching out to community stakeholders to begin the conversations for such a planning process.  

Let me be clear: this work will not be easy.  Stakeholders have different ideas for what they want to see along and around the Canal, and we will need to work through many open questions. The Gowanus future that we want will cost real money—beyond the estimated $500 million to be paid by responsible parties under the Proposed Plan—and it will not be easy to allocate those costs and raise the needed resources.

But I believe it would be a short-sighted mistake to miss this opportunity.  With the great work done by the EPA leading to a real plan for cleanup, and with the clarity provided by Hurricane Sandy about the realities of climate change for our future, we have the opportunity to reclaim this toxic corner of our neighborhood, and create an innovative model for low-lying, mixed-use areas on a warming planet. Let’s not let it pass us by.

Thank you to the EPA team—especially Judith Enck, Walter Mugdan, Christos Tsiamis, and Natalie Loney—for your diligent work developing this bold and important plan, to the many partners in government—including Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, State Senator Daniel Squadron, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, Assemblywoman Joan Millman, Councilmember Stephen Levin, and Councilmember Sara González—who have been pushing for a Gowanus cleanup, and to so many community advocates who have been working tirelessly to get to this point.  I look forward to working with all of the stakeholders to see it finalized and implemented, and to build upon it toward a vibrant, sustainable future for the Gowanus in the years ahead.

Follow Me on Social Media