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Reclaiming the Gowanus: From Lavender Lake to Superfund?

As long as the 1.5 mile long Gowanus Canal in Southwest Brooklyn has been polluted, people and government agencies have sought solutions to the vexing problems posed by this artificially created waterway; and, through the decades community organizations have organized to clean up the canal’s water and adjacent land and to prevent further contamination. Most recently plans to reinvent and redevelop the Gowanus Canal area have collided over the potential registration of the Gowanus as a national Superfund site by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This potential designation, sought at the behest of New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation, recognizes the complexity of cleaning up the area due to the widespread presence of highly noxious toxins found both in the Canal’s water and abutting land. Heavy pollution of the Gowanus Canal goes back over one hundred years.  The completion of the canal in 1869 spurred tremendous urban industrial growth along its banks and simultaneously facilitated the construction of Brooklyn’s brownstone neighborhoods.  At the same time, in a span of a few decades, the Canal also became an intensely polluted waterway.  By the early 1900’s the Gowanus Canal had already earned its nickname “Lavender Lake.” Heavy industrial uses, including the now notorious manufactured gas plants (MGP), as well as storm water-run-off combined with raw sewage turned the canal’s water into an, apparently lavender-hued, toxic stew. Apparently, the area is so polluted that initial testing by the EPA far exceeded the minimum threshold to qualify for nomination as a Superfund site. The EPA spokesperson, Walter Mugdan, revealed that the canal waters are heavily contaminated with carcinogens, such as PCBs and metals such as mercury and arsenic. Moreover, pollutants, including coal tar, which are usually measured in parts per million, have been detected at levels per hundred in the Gowanus Canal sediments. During the course of their two-year study of the Gowanus, Columbia University engineering faculty and graduate students in their 2007 book Eco-Gowanus also concluded that, given the extensive pollution of the land and water as well as the potential migration patterns of pollutants, the prevailing “excavate, haul and cap” remediation model would prove inadequate. Their conclusion seems to fit in with the rationale behind the Superfund designation, which posits that the area requires a comprehensive remediation strategy rather than site by site clean-up. The Gowanus canal corridor as we previously reported on our blog has been the focus of a rezoning proposal by the Department of City Planning.  The City as well as potential developers argue that a Superfund designation would create disincentives to reinvestment and would unnecessarily delay clean-up efforts. Yet, constructing medium- to high- density residential buildings on the canal as proposed may not be judicious unless the recurring problem of combined sewage overflows (CSO) is systematically addressed in tandem with the remediation of the industrial contamination. Also, the EPA’s initial finding of extremely high concentrations of hazardous pollutants in the land and water of the Gowanus area begs the question whether long-term redevelopment goals might not be better served by a coordinated Federally-monitored comprehensive approach in order to guard against cross- and re-contamination. The EPA and State DEC maintain that the key to successful remediation of the canal water hinges on a coordinated approach that prevents re-contamination from upland pollution sources. Given the continually changing patterns of urban land use, the Gowanus area should undergo remediation to meet the highest standard possible without placing an undue burden on manufacturing and industrial businesses. In the end, the vision for the Gowanus area should be decided in a planning process that is also inclusive of and addresses the many concerns raised by the various community constituents that do business in, work, live and go to school in its vicinity. For MAS’ position on the City’s rezoning proposal and recommendations for land-use regulations adjacent to the canal, please follow this link. Follow these links to the EPA website for more information on the national priorities or Superfund listing process and their community involvement and and technical assistance programs.