New York City Waterway Added to EPA's Superfund List

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Meandering through 1.8 miles of Brooklyn, New York, the Gowanus Canal represents a piece of the city’s industrial past, and the EPA’s decision to designate the waterway a contaminated Superfund site this week is a nod to its cleaner future.

“Carved out of tidal wetlands and streams in the 1860s, the Gowanus evolved into a busy waterway for oil refineries, chemical plants, tanneries, manufactured gas plants and other heavy industry along its banks. Industrial waste and raw sewage gushed into the canal for over a century.

"Most of that flow has halted since the 1960s as maritime shipping faded. Today the 100-foot-wide canal is used for commercial and recreational purposes by neighborhoods bordering it, including Park Slope, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens and Red Hook,” writes Mireya Navarro from The New York Times.

As a resident of one of those neighborhoods, I’ve peered into the Gowanus’s waters and seen discarded tires, rubber gloves, and an oil-slicked surface. The EPA will now begin to clear that, as well as cancer-causing contaminants and other pollutants on the canal’s floor. The project will last 10 to 12 years, according to the agency.

“After conducting our own evaluations and consulting extensively with the many people who have expressed interest in the future of the Gowanus Canal and the surrounding area, we have determined that a Superfund designation is the best path to a cleanup of this heavily contaminated and long-neglected urban waterway,” the EPA’s regional administrator, Judith Enck, said in a statement.

The EPA’s decision is at odds with what New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg wanted, however. “It’s disappointing,” said Bloomberg spokesman Marc La Vorgna, according to the Times article. “We had an innovative and comprehensive approach that was a faster route.”

Companies would drop development plans if the EPA designated the site, they said, a prediction that rang true when Toll Brothers announced that it would no longer pursue its $250 million project in the area. Another development, however, is still under consideration.

Under the city’s plan, funding was uncertain and partially dependent on Congress. Now that the Gowanus is a Superfund site, the polluters, some of which have already been identified, will pay for the cleanup.

“Since the inception of the program in 1980, the EPA has followed the ‘polluter pays’ principle, making companies responsible for contamination assume cleanup costs. At about one-third of the roughly 1,300 designated sites, however, the business responsible is bankrupt, defunct, or unknown. In these instances, the agency typically assumes remediation responsibility and the financial burden falls to taxpayers. Even so there is rarely adequate funding for cleanups, which can take years, says Jim Woolford, the EPA’s Superfund remediation and technology innovation director,” we wrote in “Clean Streak” [September-October].

Cleanup of orphaned sites depends on the Superfund trust fund, which was kept flush, in part, with money obtained through environmental tax and levies on chemical and crude oil companies. “But the tax expired in 1995 and the fund ran dry eight years later. The Obama administration has proposed a budget item that would reinstate the tax by 2011." Representatives also introduced two bills to reauthorize the tax, and Senator Frank Lautenberg, a democrat from New Jersey, proposed one last year that died in committee.

Nine other sites received designation this week, too, adding to the list. “To date, there have been 1,620 sites included on the Superfund list,” reads the EPA’s statement. “Of these sites, 341 sites have been deleted, resulting in 1,279 sites remaining on the list. There are a total of 1,340 final and proposed sites around the country.”

For a gallery of Gowanus Canal images submitted by The New York Times’ readers, visit their City Room blog.

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