EPA Official Confirms: Brooklyn Superfund Cleanups Will Proceed

Cleanup at three Brooklyn superfund sites will continue as planned, a Public Information Official working with the EPA told NYER last week. The work to remediate the Gowanus Canal, Newtown Creek, and the lead-contaminated Red Hook Ballfields will move forward, despite any actions by the new Trump administration.

In recent weeks, controversy and confusion has swirled after the Trump’s transition team ordered a freeze on all EPA grants and subcontracts. According to ProPublica, the move could “affect a significant part of the agency’s budget allocations and even threaten to disrupt core operations ranging from toxic cleanups to water quality testing.”

There has been a flurry of information leaking from sources within the EPA—most unable to be officially confirmed—but an EPA employee aware of the freeze spoke with ProPublica and stated that:

“…he had never seen anything like it in nearly a decade with the agency. Hiring freezes happened, he said, but freezes on grants and contracts seemed extraordinary. The employee said the freeze appeared to be nationwide, and as of Monday night it was not clear for how long it would be in place.”

However, Elias Rodriguez, the EPA officer assigned to the Brooklyn projects, told NYER that “the EPA fully intends to continue to provide information to the public. A fresh look at public affairs and communications processes is common practice for any new administration, and a short pause in activities allows for this assessment.”

In general, Superfund cleanups are primarily funded not by the government but by “responsible parties” that contributed to the pollution.

As of press time, Scott Pruitt, President Trump’s nominee to head the EPA, had been confirmed by the Senate Committee. Republicans suspended the Environment and Public Works Committee’s rules to approve the cabinet pick despite a Democratic boycott.

Red Hook Cleanup

EPA official taking soil samples in Red Hook Park in March 2015. Photo via EPA.

In 2015, the EPA closed multiple baseball fields in Red Hook after high levels of lead were found in the soil. The contamination was caused by a former smelting and refining facility that was once sited at the corner of Hicks and Lorraine, directly atop ball field #7. The factory operated from the 1920s through the late 1930s.

The fields impacted include Ball Fields 5, 6, 7 and 8 and Soccer Field 7.

The cleanup, performed by the New York City Parks Department and overseen by the EPA, is slated to begin this fall and cost approximately $105 million.

Gowanus Cleanup

The Gowanus Canal was named a Superfund site in 2011. Cleanup is in progress, beginning with debris removal late last year, and is expected to continue until at least 2022.

 Newtown Creek

Newtown Creek competes with the Gowanus Canal for the title of the most polluted body of water in New York City. It was named a Superfund site in 2010, but studies are still ongoing; feasible cleanup recommendations are expected by 2019.


One Weird Way to Celebrate Earth Day: Swim the Gowanus Canal

File this one under Do Not Try At Home.

Clean-water activist and serial swimmer Christopher Swain plans to celebrate Earth Day this year by dipping himself in the sludgy waters of the Gowanus Canal—and then swimming 1.8 miles.

Swathed in a bright yellow drysuit and “exposure protection gear,” Swain will enter the canal near the Flushing Tunnel and proceed to swim the entire length, all the way to New York Harbor. Along the route, he’ll encounter industrial waste, fuel slicks, sewage, trash, possibly even gonorrhea—and that’s if things go according to plan.

It is thought that Swain will be the first person in history to attempt this feat. Here’s hoping he’s also the first person to complete it, unharmed.

Um, Why?

The Gowanus Canal is one of the most polluted waterways in the United States. Photo credit: Missy S./Creative Commons.

The purpose of this act is not to freak you out, or encourage anyone else to take a dip (definitely not that). Swain claims he’s actually trying to call attention to the slow federal cleanup of the canal, and advocate for an eventual swimmable waterway.

“It isn’t meant to be a stunt, it’s just meant to be a swimmer imagining a day when everybody can swim it,” Swain told the Daily News. “I don’t think big changes happen unless someone is willing to put themselves on the line.”

This isn’t the first time Swain has taken a swim to raise awareness about threatened waterways. Since 1996, the native New Yorker has also swum the entire lengths of the Columbia, Hudson, Mohawk, Charles, and Mystic Rivers, as well as Lake Champlain, and large sections of the Atlantic coastline of the United States.

The EPA has taken this occasion to remind us that swimming in the canal is not advised:

You Can Watch

For those of you eager to see Swain do his thing, here are the details:

When: Earth Day, April 22, 2015, 12:30 p.m.

Where: Whole Foods Market, 214 3rd Street, Brooklyn, NY 11215 (Park vehicles in WFM lot. Park bikes in racks near store entrance. Gather in Park/Walkway along the Canal, at the outer edge of the WFM parking lot.)

Beyond Cleaning Up the Canal- The Future of Gowanus

Federal Superfund site, manufacturing and arts hub, and working class community in the midst of gentrification- the area around the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn is undergoing a historic transformation.

In response to these changes, a “planning framework” for the neighborhood has been developed which organizers, like the office of Council Member Brad Lander, say heavily incorporates public input.

A draft of the framework, called Bridging Gowanus, was released by local elected officials and community leaders just before Thanksgiving. Public participation in the planning process was facilitated by the Pratt Center for Community Development.

Described as a “drastic change from a polluted, toxic, EPA Superfund, the Bridging Gowanus framework imagines a neighborhood with parks, open space, and public canal access.”

The plan calls for existing public parks in Gowanus to be renovated and connected via a “Gowanus Greenscape” network that includes access to the Canal at public sites, historic interpretation at preserved buildings and other locations, and a public arts program.

In a statement, Council Member Lander’s office said the project’s ultimate goal is a “community-supported blueprint to inform the de Blasio Administration’s decisions about land use in the area.”

Infrastructure Investment & Managed Growth in Gowanus

The Bridging Gowanus plan calls for infrastructure investments and land use regulations which community leaders say are needed to “insure a sustainable, vibrant, and inclusive future” for the area.

The plan is organized around five principles:

  • Investing in sustainable infrastructure;
  • Strengthening local manufacturing through the creation of a new Gowanus Manufacturing Zone restricting hotels, big box retail, self-storage facilities, nightclubs and large-scale offices;
  • Maintaining the area’s current mix of uses– light industry, artistic and cultural activities, retail and housing;
  • Preserving and creating affordable housing;
  • Developing a “pathway for responsible growth,” such as residential development in taller buildings, but only if community goals for “infrastructure, resiliency, sustainability, a genuine mix of uses, good jobs, and affordability” are also met.

Sustainable infrastructure is a critical part of the plan due to the area’s growing vulnerability to flooding and storm surges.

Infrastructure projects, such as Canal cleanup, flood mitigation, new parks and green spaces, improvements to public transportation and new school seats, will receive at least partial support from Superfund resources and existing public investments, say planners.

A new Gowanus “tax increment financing” (TIF) mechanism, capturing increases in property value, has also been proposed to help finance area-wide infrastructure improvements.

“Preserving the Character” of Gowanus

The framework includes a range of urban planning strategies which planners say are designed to “preserve the character” of Gowanus.

This includes the Gowanus Green Affordable Housing Development, proposed for the six-acre “Public Place” site along the west side of the Canal, between 5th and 7th Streets.

Council Member Lander’s office says the development would include a waterfront park, and 8 buildings ranging from 5 to 14 stories, creating 774 units of rental and for-sale housing and 65,000 square feet of community and retail space.

Seventy percent, 540, of the units will be “affordable to households at a very wide range of incomes,” with more than 100 apartments designated as “affordable rentals for seniors.”

According to Lander’s office, Bridging Gowanus received input from more than 300 community “stakeholders” – including long-time and newer homeowners, tenants and NYCHA residents, small business owners, environmental activists, artists, affordable housing advocates, and others.

The “comprehensive” plan has community consensus says Council Member Lander. However, the document itself notes that some local residents do not support more residential development in the Gowanus area.

The planning framework could eventually become the basis for a full-fledged area plan created by the New York City Department of City Planning.

The public can comment on the draft planning framework through the end of the year.






Tunnel Vision: Does Flushing Mean a Cleaner Canal?

The Gowanus Canal Flushing Tunnel is operating again after four years and $177 million worth of repairs. At full capacity, the tunnel will pull 252 million gallons of fresh water from Buttermilk Channel (the sliver of harbor that separates Brooklyn from Governors Island) into the head of the Gowanus Canal every day.

Officials say this infusion of oxygenated water will dramatically improve the aesthetics (including the smell) of the canal, and provide more suitable habitat for aquatic and other wildlife. Will it work? Residents and canal advocates say they aren’t holding their breath.

History of a Troubled Tunnel

Map of the Gowanus Flushing Tunnel
Photo credit: New York Times

The brick-lined tunnel was originally constructed in 1911 as a seemingly simple solution to a complex problem: using a giant propeller, pump the dirty, toxic sludge filling the Gowanus Canal into the Buttermilk Channel. Out of sight, out of mind.

Almost immediately after opening in the mid-1800s, the Gowanus Canal had become a dumping ground for the tanneries, gas plants, and cement works that lined the bulkheaded banks. Coal tar, mercury, lead, and other toxic metals were regularly discharged into the water—along with the neighborhood’s raw sewage, a common practice at the time. As early as 1910, the Gowanus was described as “almost solid” with with the stuff.

The flushing tunnel was the city’s attempt to deal with the noxious smell and appearance, but it was plagued by mechanical problems and never particularly effective. Despite that, it continued running until the 1960s, when the pump system was damaged and the city opted not to repair it.

For nearly forty years after, the waters of the canal remained stagnant—even as the landscape of the area changed dramatically. Today trucking has replaced shipping and residential developments are replacing factories, yet the industrial legacy of the Gowanus remains. Coal tar continues to leach from abandoned, below-ground storage tanks, and the bottom of the channel is coated in a 10-foot-thick layer of sludge, vividly described as “black mayonnaise.”

Photo credit: Joe Holmes / Creative Commons

The raw sewage hasn’t gone away either. With any significant amount of rainfall, the city’s combined sewer overflow system sends millions of gallons of untreated waste into the canal — a situation dubbed by residents as the “poo-nami.” Today the canal is a federally-designated Superfund site and recognized as one of the most polluted bodies of water in the United States.

A Fresh(er) Start

Photo credit: Tamas Neltz via Creative Commons

For the last four years, the New York City DEP has focused on what they call The Gowanus Facilities Upgrade in order to “improve the capacity, function, efficiency, and reliability of the Gowanus Canal flushing tunnel system … with the aim of improving the water quality in the Gowanus Canal over the long term.”

The project, which is being conducted in tandem (though separately) from the federal Superfund cleanup plan, has consisted primarily of reconstructing the motor pit and replacing the century-old propeller with three vertical turbines.

As of May 2014, the tunnel is running at full capacity and the water flow has been reversed, pumping some 250 million gallons of fresh water from Buttermilk Channel daily into the stagnant canal.

This time, the focus of the flushing is not necessarily to move pollution out of the canal, but to bring oxygenated water into it. Water quality studies have found the concentration of oxygen in the canal to be just 1.5 parts per million, well below the minimum 4 parts per million needed to sustain life. DEP officials say that bringing in cleaner water with more dissolved oxygen should reduce smells and make the canal more hospitable to fish, plants, and mollusks.

In June, the DEP will also reactivate a pump station which will allow it to send up to 30 million gallons of wastewater to the Red Hook Wastewater Treatment plant each day. The City claims this will reduce the amount of raw sewage overflows during rain storms by 34 percent.

A Post-Flush Plan?

It’s clear that the City believes these dual upgrades are a significant milestone in improving the condition of the canal. But residents and local officials caution that while these improvements are necessary and welcome, they are also just the first step in a much larger Superfund cleanup plan.

“This needs to be effective,” Gowanus Alliance president Paul Basile told The Brooklyn Paper. “This is the first key element of the clean canal. It will never been sustainable without this.”