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Public Gets First Look at EPA's $500 Million Gowanus Canal Cleanup Plan

By Leslie Albrecht | January 24, 2013 9:41am

CARROLL GARDENS — The expensive and lengthy cleanup of the Gowanus Canal will rid the waterway of dangerous contaminants, but it won't make it clean enough for fishing.

That was one of the takeaways at the EPA's first public presentation of its proposal to clean the Superfund site, which is expected to cost roughly $500 million and be finished around 2022.

EPA officials laid out their plans at P.S. 58 on Wednesday night and fielded questions from the public, as well as plenty of praise. Applause broke out several times for EPA officials, and one resident said working with the federal agency had "restored his faith in government." Another woman said her reaction to the cleanup proposal could be summed up in one word: "Hallelujah."

Officials detailed the sorry state of the historic canal, which was tainted with dozens of toxins — some of which are cancer-causing — when nearby businesses dumped waste into its waters. Today that pollution can be seen on the canal's surface in oily globs, and it lurks on its bottom in the form of soft, polluted sediment that officials described as "black mayonnaise."

Removing that sludge is a key goal of the cleanup, as is stopping raw sewage from flowing into the canal during rainstorms. The bill for the cleanup will fall to more than 20 parties whom the EPA has identified as polluters. The two largest are National Grid and the City of New York, which is responsible for the sewage.

The city's share is estimated to cost the city $78 million. One resident said he was concerned that the steep pricetag will make the city reluctant to participate on the cleanup, and asked EPA officials whether they would use Superfund law to order the city to comply.

Another commenter, Joseph Alexiou, who's writing a book about the Gowanus Canal, said locals have been complaining about sewage in the canal for 135 years, but got little response from the city. "It took the city this long to deal with it and it's because of [EPA]," Alexiou said. "Until they had to and were forced to deal with it because of the law, they decided to look the other way."

EPA official Walter Mugdan said the agency expected to reach a deal with the city, should the cleanup proposal move forward.

“It's our expectation we'll work closely with the city as we do with all the other responsible parties and it’s our hope and expectation that we will reach a negotiated settlement in which the city will agree to do that."

Aside from a cleaner canal, the multi-year cleanup is expected to generate "hundreds" of construction jobs and other types of employment. One resident asked whether the canal would be clean enough for fishing after the cleanup. Not likely, Mugdan said.

"Our goal is to overall reduce the [pollution]," Mugdan said. "We don't know when we will achieve fishable and swimmable waters, but ultimately that remains the goal of the United States."

The public comment period on the EPA's proposed cleanup ends on March 28, and the final plan for the cleanup is expected to be completed by 2016. Finishing the dirty job will take until about 2022, officials said.

A second public meeting will be held Thursday night in Red Hook, where the EPA as proposed that some of the dredged materials be treated. A developer has said he'd like to treat the material at a waterfront shipping terminal.

The second public meeting on the EPA's proposed cleanup for the Gowanus Canal will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Joseph Miccio Community Center, 110 W. 9th St.