Gowanus: The Background

Published March 2, 2010 in The Brooklyn Ink

The Environmental Protection Agency now has the legal authority to go after The City of New York and eight other polluters who for decades contributed to contamination of the Gowanus Canal. The EPA was granted the power after labeling the 1.8-mile canal that divides Red Hook and South Brooklyn from Park Slope a federal Superfund site, a list of the country’s most hazardous waste sites.

“The City of New York has owned or operated various facilities including an asphalt plant, coal plan, and incinerator,” said EPA spokesperson Elizabeth Totman. “We think that the coal runoff combined with metal and coal tar has impacted the ground water and migrated into the canal.”

The EPA also identified eight additional responsible polluting parties, but said the investigation is ongoing. Among the parties are Con-Edison, Chemtura Corporation, The U.S. Navy, National Grid, Beazer East Corporation, Rapid American Corporation, Brink’s Incorporated and Cibro Petroleum Products. The next step is negotiating an agreement with each party to investigate the extent of the contamination.

The canal was brought to the attention of the EPA after the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation sent a letter in December 2008 asking the federal agency to consider adding the Gowanus Canal to their Superfund list. The letter initiated preliminary sampling of the canal to test for contaminates.

“When we got that letter we took the proper steps to consider it and to figure out if the canal was contaminated enough,” Totman said. “We were out in the field in late January 2009 to do sampling for hazard ranking score to determine whether or not the potential pathways of exposure of a site are warranted. Gowanus canal scored above the threshold, which makes it warranted to do the Superfund site list.”

When asked about the EPA’s decision to add Gowanus to the Superfund list, the State’s Department of Environmental Conservation, which initiated the federal investigation, was mute on the issue. “For background we’re just not commenting on it right now,” said DEC spokesperson Lori Severino. “We are pleased that they are working on it and we’re not saying anything else.”

During their investigation the EPA found evidence of heavy metals, pesticides, and contaminates that occur in oil, coal and tar deposits present in the canal. In April of last year, the EPA proposed adding the canal as one of its’ 1,279 currently listed sites. After reviewing more than 1,300 comments from the community, businesses and officials, the agency decided the Superfund list was the best approach to cleaning up the contaminated canal.

The federal agency is already negotiating with National Grid, one of the responsible parties on an agreement. “They are responsible for three manufactured gas plants along the canal,” Totman said. Plants artificially produce gases like hydrogen, methane and ethylene by burning coal, wood or oil. “Those plants created contamination that is affecting the water in the canal. They have been extremely cooperative.”

Totman said the EPA hopes to have an agreement with National Grid by the end of the month. If agreed upon, it would force the company to install wells that run parallel to the canal to determine the source of the contaminated groundwater and if the contaminates are migrating from the property to the canal. “If we do find contaminated groundwater, the next determination would be how do we cut that off,” Totman said.

Marc LaVorgna, a spokesman in the mayor’s office, said the city was disappointed with the EPA’s decision. LaVorgna pointed to the history of Superfund which he said involves lengthy court battles that slow down the process of cleaning up a site.

“We had an approach that would get us to Superfund level cleanup faster by avoiding any potential major litigation,” LaVorgna said. “The stigma caused by a Superfund label can cause disinvestment and deter development. In either plan, the city is considered a potential party and responsible for paying some of the cost.”