What’s good for Newtown isn’t good enough for Gowanus — and some observers are wondering why.
On Dec. 23, The Bloomberg Administration announced that it would be supporting the designation of Newtown Creek as a Superfund site, a stark deviation from its position on the same designation for the Gowanus Canal, where the city is vehemently opposed to a cleanup overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency and instead has devised an alternative scheme to get the job done itself.
“They are different situations and we evaluate each one independently,” explained Marc La Vorgna, a spokesperson for the mayor. “Each situation is not the same.”
For the Gowanus, the city has proposed an alternative plan that uses the power of persuasion to bring potentially responsible polluters to the bargaining table, as opposed to a courtroom. Under the Superfund program, polluters are compelled to clean up the mess they created, or face stiff fines or legal action.The city’s plan replies on the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which allows the Army Corps of Engineers to perform environmental restoration in a navigable channel, which the fetid canal is considered.Up to 65 percent of that work could be funded by taxpayers, and that cash could lower the tab for a responsible party, incentivizing participation in the city’s plan.
“In Newtown, none of those factors exist — the Army Corps is not there and we don’t have a similar and willing group of potentially responsible parties,” La Vorgna noted. “We do believe that the way the situation exists now is that Superfund might be the best route.”
Last month, city officials submitted public comments to the EPA supportive ofa federal clean up of the creek, while also urging the federal agency to work with local officials in every step of the remediation. Chief among the concerns is that the city is not named a potentially responsible party during the environmental investigation phase of the cleanup, and that expensive projects, such as the construction of a new sludge boat dock in Greenpoint and the dredging of Whale Creek, do not get further delayed.
“In Gowanus we have a viable alternative plan that we believe will get the canal just as clean,” La Vorgna said. “In this case, we feel there isn’t a better option. There isn’t an alternative plan at Newtown Creek. If we thought there was a better way to do it, we would say so.”
The city’s alternativeplan was hatched only after it was announced that the canal could be named a Superfund site. Developers like Toll Brothers cheered the city’s plan, saying it is the only way their massive residential development project planned along the canal could proceed.
While Newtown, which snakes through Greenpoint, Williamsburg and parts of Queens, is one of the most polluted waterways in the nation, it doesn’t have the problem of sewage overflows like the canal does, noted David Von Spreckelsen, senior vice president at Toll. And the city is already spending $150 million to help mitigate the sewage problem, he added. “So the city has a plan to help fix the major pollution to the canal, but doesn’t have a plan for the cleanup of Newtown Creek.As such, Superfund Newtown and leave Gowanus to the city,” said Von Spreckelsen.
Rep. Nydia Velázquez blasted the city’s positions as incongruous. “Superfund has a proven track record of successfully cleaning up contaminated sites and making polluters pay the remediation costs.It is unclear why it would be permissible to utilize Superfund for one site yet oppose using it for the other, especially when the alternative, WRDA funding, isn’t a feasible option for either site,” she said. In a recent op-ed, the lawmaker said the Corps has a WRDA backlog of more than 1,000 projects, totaling $61 billion. “Gowanus, if approved for WRDA funding, would go straight to the back of that 1,000 project line,” she wrote.
Gowanus resident Steven Miller speculated that the city’s differing stances have only to do with money. “They have big development lined up to take action along the canal,” he said.
Observers said the only residential project near the creek is Hunter’s Point, a massive affordable housing development on the Long Island City side of the waterway. The waterway is mostly home to a variety of manufacturing and industrial uses.
But La Vorgna insisted that the level of private investment near Newton is as significant as in the Gowanus, where the mayor has said that $400 million in private investment could be jeopardy is the canal is named a Superfund site. “These are two areas that significantly benefit from investments that are ready to be made, and we want to be sure we are taking the best route possible.”
And while the mayor and his staffers have argued all along that there is empirical evidence that a Superfund listing stigmatizes a neighborhood and diminishes property values, La Vorgna said that even so, along Newtown at least, the designation “remains the best choice.”
Gowanus resident and Superfund supporter Linda Mariano was left baffled. “They resist reality,” she said of the city. “It’s all hot air.”
--Aaron Short contributed to this story