EPA honcho: Superfund can’t stop the stink!

The Brooklyn Paper
Share on TwitterTweet
Share on Facebook

Don’t miss our updates:

The proposed federal clean-up of the Gowanus Canal would not correct the deficiencies of the aging city sewer system that dumps untreated sewage into the foul waterway each year, a top-ranking official in the Environmental Protection Agency told The Brooklyn Paper.

At the same time, the feds also cast new doubt on Mayor Bloomberg’s alternative to the Superfund clean-up hours before officials from the mayor’s office presented their counter position at a civic meeting on Monday night in Carroll Gardens.

The EPA, which is evaluating a state request to place the canal on the Superfund list, told The Brooklyn Paper that it’s focused on removing the toxic sediments on the floor of the canal and not solving the bigger problem: preventing 300 millions of gallons raw human waste that pours into the Gowanus every year after heavy rainfalls.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with the problem that the Superfund is looking at — which is the legacy of 150 years of industrial activity there in the muck,” said Walter Mugdan, who directs the EPA’s Superfund program in New York.

Mugdan said his agency’s primary objective is to dredge PCBs, dioxin and coal tars, and seal off continuing pollution that leeches into the 1.8-mile canal from toxic sites on the banks — work that Mugdan “guesstimates” would cost $300 million to $400 million, some of it paid for by the heirs of companies that caused the pollution in the first place.

So-called “water quality” issues — like the city’s failed system of dumping sewer overflows into the nearest body of water — are the state’s responsibility.

That said, Mugdan said the EPA would fix the sewers as part of its Superfund effort if they prove to be a significant source of toxins like the PCBs found on the bottom of the Gowanus — though he said that it is unlikely that PCBs and dioxins are caused by the sewage.

The revelation helps clarify persistent questions about the goals — and the likely success — of the federal Superfund remediation, a lengthy process in which the EPA tries to force polluters to pay for the clean-up of contaminated sites, often through lawsuits. Federal money also pays for a portion of many Superfund sites.

The Bloomberg Administration already plans to spend $15 million to dredge organic waste from 1,000 feet at the head of the canal and $160 million on infrastructure that will increase water flow through the fetid corpse of water.

These taxpayer investments will only mitigate the results of the sewage overflows, and resulted from an agreement with the state in 1993 to boost water quality, a promise that has not been met yet.

The mayor’s deputies say that these plans to reduce the sewage problem, work that is scheduled to begin this fall, are in jeopardy with a Superfund designation.

Bloomberg also opposes the Superfund listing because it might deter some or all of the expected $400 million in private investment near the Gowanus, an industrial area he’s targeted for residential development, and because the EPA might sue the city to pay for some of the clean-up.

On Monday night, administration representatives told a packed crowd at the Carroll Gardens Neighborhood Association that quicker and cheaper methods exist to clean the Gowanus instead of the often-litigious and lengthy Superfund process.

“The city thinks we can do it a different way,” said Caswell Holloway, the chief of staff for Deputy Mayor Ed Skyler.

Yet the Bloomberg Administration concedes that the Superfund debate forced the city to rapidly adjust its objectives, now aiming for a much higher level of cleanliness than it had before the EPA became involved.

“The new standard that the city has to meet is the standard that a Superfund clean-up would attain,” said Holloway. “One way or the other this work has to be done fully.”

The city is developing a three-pronged scenario to decontaminate the canal:

• Proceed with the planned and mandated $175 million in dredging and work on the so-called “flushing tunnel,” which brings in so-called fresh water from the Buttermilk Channel.

• Partner with the Army Corps of Engineers, which the city hopes would provide the bulk of funding, to dredge the entire canal.

• Compel polluters from the 250 current and former property owners along the canal to contribute to a pool of clean-up money.

Already, the EPA has criticism of this approach.

“Any proposal from [the city] would have to address our fundamental concern, but I have my doubts about their ability to develop a package that does that,” said Mugdan.

“Where’s the money coming from? If [the Army Corps of Engineers] is to be one of the main funding sources, there’s got to be some persuasive argument that that money in sufficient quantities would be available when needed,” Mugdan told The Brooklyn Paper.

Among activists who live near the canal, there is more support for a Superfund listing, even with its checkered record, than for Mayor Bloomberg’s argument.

“The EPA has been doing this for years and years and years. [The city] is trying to play catch up,” said Glenn Kelly, a member of the Carroll Gardens Neighborhood Association.

The EPA will accept public comments about the Gowanus Canal until July 8 and might add the waterway to its Superfund list as early as September.

Updated 5:12 pm, July 9, 2018
Today’s news:
Share on TwitterTweet
Share on Facebook

Don’t miss our updates:

Reasonable discourse

paper from nearby says:
Please check your numbers before publishing. While the city claims that they plan to spend upwards of $200 million on the Flushing Tunnel work and it's limited dredging project; the actual CONTRACTED dollar amount for this work is less than $140 million.

The construction workers that have been awarded this contract need this work.
Is the city actually considering denying them these jobs just to spite the EPA for designating the Gowanus District a Superfund.

Doesn’t the EPA just want to give more construction workers jobs dredging other parts of the canal?
May 12, 2009, 4:50 pm
Sid from Boerum Hill says:
I started out by attending the fist meeting in Carrol Gardens. After the meeting it wasn't clear to me what the Superfund designation would do IF the City was willing to clean the Canal. I came away leaning towards designation as I told someone who asked me on Friday but if the City is willing to clean the canal up to standards the EPA can set without a formal designation what is the point of the designation? If they don't do it the EPA can always step in. Given that they won't even touch the City's causing much of the pollution what is the point? The EPA said it would leave the uplands to the State as it has done all along. No time estimate given by the EPA has any credibility given that not a shovel has been extracted from the Upper Hudson and this is ONE polluter identified 25 years ago.....just seems to add a new level of bureaucracy and stop the current development and clean up. Its not like the EPA never heard of the site for 30 years....
May 12, 2009, 5:46 pm
EPA Fan from Park Slope says:
That "ONE polluter" of the Hudson was the world's richest company before EXXON came along, and they chose to spend tens of millions fighting instead of doing the right thing, which they've been forced to do in the end.

None of the companies guilty of polluting the Gowanus have that kind of dough, so it'll happen much faster here.
May 12, 2009, 6:26 pm
fred from Carroll Gardens says:
I attended the CGNA meeting last night where a guy from the City was talking about their plan to decontaminate Gowanus. My feeling is that they do not discuss the high level of contamination anymore (could they?) . We are far away from previous statements from Scotto and friends trying to authorize the developers to build residential building there now.
One thing is sure, it will cost a lot. Local taxes for the City or Fed taxes for the EPA. the second choice will have less impact on local residents pockets.
May 12, 2009, 6:54 pm
Willem from Gowanus says:
I really want that health study that is part of Superfund. This neighborhood has never had one. And I want the comprehensive cleanup that EPA Walter Mugdan said that only Superfund listing would assure. I live in Gowanus, and NOT ONE of my neighbors is against Superfund (even though we all got flyers in our mailboxes with various scary info - not one of those flyers was signed by the people who put them into our mailboxes, by the way). I am wondering where these objections are coming from, because I know that Toll has hired PR people and lawyers to fight superfund listing. Toll says they don't want the stigma of superfund. The stigma is not in the naming - it is in the pollution and toxicity here - something you wanted to ignore (even after EPA nominated Gowanus as Superfund site, Toll said "water was not really that dirty). I don't care how long it takes. I just know that I don't trust the city, developers, and our electeds who are against superfund. They were willing to sell us all down the canal with their approvals of putting dense high buildings here. Why should I now believe that they REALLY have the community's interest and welfare in mind?
May 12, 2009, 9:49 pm
Ward from Cobble Hill says:
How could we trust the city to do a cleanup when they weren't even interested in those contaminants until the Superfund listing was made last month. No wonder they needed more time to make a plan,there wasn't even a base plan to start with.

Any mayor's plan would need to lean heavy on the EPA anyway, while at the same time tying the EPA's hands. How pointless! Anyone who thinks the city could do the same level of cleanup as the EPA and not have even longer court delays either has their head in the sand or is pushing some hidden addenda.
Only the EPA Superfund law provides any means to shorten potential law suites. A city plan would not be able to available themselves to some of the most important tools that come under a Superfund designation.
May 13, 2009, 12:20 pm
Dean from Boerum Hill says:
Let sleeping dogs lie. This is an excellent article. It says that the EPA is only after the sediments on the bottom of the Canal and not the raw sewage that stagnates in the Canal after CSO events. When people talk about smells and unsightly floatables in the Canal, they are talking about sewage. The sediments at the bottom have no impact on the quality of life of Gowanus residents. Typically dredging is done to deepen channels for shipping. There is no stated goal of bringing shipping back to the Gowanus. So why dredge the sediment. What is important is to deal with the sewage issue. And that is what the City's plans are. However, with a Superfund designation, the City's plans could be put on hold for a generation. So people, what is more important dealing with the sewage which impacts your quality of life or dealing with sediment on the bottom of the Canal which doesn't? I say let sleeping dogs lie and keep the sediment at the bottom of the Canal where it is not impacting anyone. I say reject the Superfund.
May 13, 2009, 4:37 pm
Judah Spechal from Bed-Stuy says:
Combined it seems the work each agencies wants to do would relatively clean up the canal. Is there any talk of they possibly coming together?
May 13, 2009, 5:03 pm
Judah Spechal from Bed-Stuy says:
Combined it seems the work each agencies wants to do would relatively clean up the canal. Is there any talk of them possibly coming together?
May 13, 2009, 5:04 pm
Raul Rothblatt from Prospect Heights says:
One possible argument against Superfund designation is that it would not clean up the sewage problem. But why should we fail to clean up the PCBs and other older dangerous chemicals just because there are new pollutants coming in? Shouldn't they both be fixed, since both are dangerous?

The City has a record of failure in addressing ALL Gowanus issues. They are only now addressing the problem. I remain convinced that we should leave the cleanup to the people who have experience doing this. The EPA should be in charge of cleaning up the PCBs and such. Any help cleaning up the sewers would be a great addition.
May 14, 2009, 11:03 am
lefki from gowanus says:
meeting to discuss the Gowanus Superfund & all its implications for the canal & surrounding lands.

is the Superfund really Super?!

saturday may 16th // noon - three
@ the brooklyn yard,
(400 Carroll btwn. bond & nevins)

open forum for discussions to take place.
literature will be available as attachments.
contact :
May 14, 2009, 12:24 pm
dave from Gowanus says:
Will those sediments remain asleep during a storm surge?

What would become of the new housing on the banks of the canal if it were to be soaked in Gowanus sediments from a cat 3 storm? Should we wait till then to declair the place a Superfund.

And have you seen the skum and smelled the smells that comes up from the sediments when they are exposed to the air during low tide? Do you know that low tides happen twice each day?

And why are you so quick to believe that the EPA will not address the CSO's? The EPA Superfund web site includes water as part of cleanup goals.
May 14, 2009, 11 pm
observer from all parts says:
Ok folks ,, let's get back to reality... The sewer system is owned and operated by the City of New York. our City taxpayers fund that system.. the cause for Combined sewer overflows is either the lack of capacity in the pipes or the sewage plant... Does anybody really believe EPA superfund will build dozens of miles on new sewers in our crowded city streets and a major expansion at the Red Hook Sewage plant at the cost of hundreds on millions if not billions of dollars.. please
May 15, 2009, 12:18 pm
Dean from Boerum Hill says:
The City's plan is to do selective dredging and capping with the Army Corps to deal with those low tide issues.

And the reason why you can't do both the City's plans and the Superfund is because the EPA is going to sue property owners and those property owners are going to turn around and sue the City and there will be suits and counter suits for decades and nothing will get done, not the flushing tunnel, not the pumping station, and not the dredging.

If and when this site becomes a Superfund, you can write it off for generations. That's a shame, but true. Just check out similar projects like the Hudson and Passaic Rivers -- 25 years and not a lick of clean-up done.
May 15, 2009, 1:44 pm
bkparent from bk says:
To Dean from Boerum Hill: Your statement is incorrect. Work is being done in both the Hudson and Passaic Rivers. And it would have happened a lot faster if politicians and lobbyists hadn't tried to stop it. Or, in the case of the Hudson, GE, which spent tens of millions of dollars on a PR campaign to scare residents of towns along the Hudson to try to persuade them to oppose the dredging. Like what is happening with the Gowanus, the cynicism is breathtaking. First, say the cleanup will be bad for the "community," and do everything possible to oppose the listing, and the cleanup. Then, when it takes a long time (because of industry fighting it, or real estate developers), blame the EPA.
May 16, 2009, 8:57 am
razrsharp from gowanus says:
Hey lefky from gowanus - you're David Lefkowitz, right? The person who has the property that Toll would have built on, except now they're probably going to back out. That flyer you put in my mailbox about the "Gowanus Homeowner's Assn." mtg. went right into the garbage. Bogus info. Bogus group. I should know. I live in Gowanus. Of course you would be anti-Superfund. It would mean your deal with Toll probably won't go through and you'll probably have to contribute to paying for cleaning up your toxic land.
May 16, 2009, 11:25 pm

Comments closed.

First name
Last name
Your neighborhood
Email address
Daytime phone

Your letter must be signed and include all of the information requested above. (Only your name and neighborhood are published with the letter.) Letters should be as brief as possible; while they may discuss any topic of interest to our readers, priority will be given to letters that relate to stories covered by The Brooklyn Paper.

Letters will be edited at the sole discretion of the editor, may be published in whole or part in any media, and upon publication become the property of The Brooklyn Paper. The earlier in the week you send your letter, the better.

Keep it local!

Stay in touch with your community. Subscribe to our free newsletter: