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Taxpayers — not polluters — could foot a large chunk of the bill to clean up the Gowanus Canal if the city’s alternative approach to tackling the fetid waterway is adopted, an official from the Environmental Protection Agency said this week.

“As I understand it, the model they have in mind is that Congress would apply a substantial amount of the funding,” said EPA regional director Walter Mugdan. Under the city’s nascent plan to clean up the Gowanus Canal without designating it a Superfund site, the federal government may need to come up with 65 percent of the clean−up cost — or nearly half a billion dollars, “in order to make it a plausible plan, to make it work,” he said. “That is the biggest challenge of coming up with a credible plan.”

Last month, the canal was named for potential inclusion in the Superfund program, a federal initiative that uses the law to compel those responsible for a site’s pollution to pay for its clean−up. But the city’s plan could lack the legal teeth to get companies to agree to pay to clean up the waterway.

That fact alone could leave an alternate approach dead in the water.

“I’d be very, very surprised if companies step forward and would be willing to bind themselves legally to the work that needs to be done,” Mugdan told this paper.

The Bloomberg administration fears a Superfund designation will stigmatize the region and repel residential development. The city says its plan hopes to achieve the same standards as the Superfund program, while avoiding what some feel could be lengthy delays to ‘shovel ready’ remediation work, legal wrangling, and diminished property values.

Under the alternative, the city would proceed with $175 million in planned dredging and work on the flushing tunnel; would work with the Army Corps of Engineers on the dredging of the entire canal; and ensure that polluters from the 250 current and former property owners along the canal contribute funds for remediation.

At a meeting of the Carroll Gardens Neighborhood Association (CGNA) this week, Caswell Holloway, chief of staff to Ed Skyler, the deputy mayor for operations, said city officials are working in tandem with the EPA and the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which initially recommended the canal for Superfund status. “The point is, we don’t have to go through Superfund to clean the canal. There are a continuum of options,” Holloway insisted, adding that the alternative plan remains in the early stages of development.

Mugdan confirmed that he has already met with high−level city officials five times since the controversial designation was announced.

If an alternative approach is adopted, it would be the first time a proposed site in New York would take such a route. In the nearly 30−year history of the program, only about 40 sites out of 1800 have taken the alternative approach, Mugdan said. Still, he said, the EPA is keeping an open mind, and the city and the EPA have the same ultimate objective. But the inclusion of the canal in the Superfund program, Mugdan maintained, “is best for getting the site cleaned up.”

At the CGNA, the city’s plan was met with skepticism. “How do we have any confidence? Your track record here is not good,” said local resident Marlene Donnelly, who noted that the city’s $175 million remediation work is not voluntary, but is being compelled by state consent order, pursuant to the Clean Water Act.

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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