This week’s front-page report that Whole Foods had abandoned its five-year quest to open a mega-supermarket on the banks of the Gowanus Canal reminds us anew how challenging it will be to clean this toxic waterway.
The timing of the grocery chain’s announcement that it would not build at Third Avenue and Third Street was ironic, given that it came on the same day that the public comment period ended for a federal proposal to declare the canal a Superfund site.
Whole Foods’ “comment” spoke volumes — indeed, it is a fitting symbol of why the best choice for the canal is Superfund designation.
For the past two months, we have listened closely as the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Bloomberg administration have laid out competing plans for cleaning the canal.
The feds favor an approach that identifies polluters — current ones and, in the case of the Gowanus Canal, some going back more than 150 years — and then forces them to pay for their toxic handiwork. That process is often mired in litigation.
The city offers a two-pronged approach: first, it would identify polluters and seek voluntary contributions towards cleaning the canal. Then, the city hopes to use the federal Water Resources Development Act as a funding stream for dredging the dangerous muck at the bottom of the canal.
Many residents of the canal zone do not trust the city approach — specifically because the city has failed to act over the past few decades, under this mayor, his predecessor, his predecessor’s predecessor and so on. In addition, the WRDA funding stream requires regular Congressional approval. Our toxic little canal would be on the same list of worthy clean-up sites as hundreds of other projects from congressional districts all over the country.
Superfund designation appears to be the better option. The EPA, now in the hands of a more environmentally friendly president, has said it is committed to the clean-up even before its lawyers haul the polluters into court.
And Superfund money for what is expected to be a 10-year clean-up is not dependent on fighting to get the Gowanus Canal included in the fine print of an omnibus funding bill in Congress.
Superfund designation does carry a stigma that will scare off would-be developers, as it already has Whole Foods and Toll Brothers, which said it won’t go ahead with its canal-side development if the waterway is declared a Superfund site.
That’s regrettable, but if the federal government succeeds where the city has long failed, there will be plenty of other developers eager to get to work in a safe and clean Gowanus Canal zone.