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EPA Releases Finalized $506 Million Gowanus Canal Cleanup Plan

By Leslie Albrecht | September 30, 2013 5:13pm
 The cleanup will take eight to 10 years, but won't make the canal safe enough for swimming.
EPA Releases Finalized $506 Million Gowanus Canal Cleanup Plan
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GOWANUS — A decade from now, the notoriously filthy Gowanus Canal will be clean enough for boating, but not swimming, thanks to a $506 million cleanup the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unveiled on Monday.

The dirty job will take eight to 10 years and will significantly reduce pollution on the canal, but it won't make it pristine, admitted EPA Region 2 Administrator Judith Enck, who stood with officials on the banks of the polluted waterway to announce the agency's finalized plan for cleansing the contaminated canal.

"You'll be able to safely boat and be able to touch the water, but it's going to take decades to get this water body to the point where it would be safe to swim or eat fish — so no swimming any time soon, but this is the key first step to get us there," Enck said.

Enck singled out a few key points from the EPA's final 105-page "record of decision" — the eagerly anticipated document that spells out exactly how the cleanup will happen, which is now posted online.

The cleanup won't place a toxic sludge disposal facility in Red Hook, an idea that residents vehemently opposed. Enck noted also that the cleanup will require the city to build two underground tanks to help keep raw sewage —  a major source of pollution — out of the canal. The location of those tanks hasn't been determined yet, but residents have feared that one of the tanks could displace the neighborhood's only public pool.

The cleanup will try to reverse more than 150 years of pollution in the 1.8-mile long, 100-feet wide canal, which was long used as a dumping ground by nearby industrial companies.

Federal, state and city officials cheered the finalized plan, which comes three years after the canal was official declared a Superfund site.

[This] remediation will one day turn the canal into an economic engine for our borough and an urban oasis of relaxation for Brooklynites," said Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. "I dream of a future when we see families lined up to take a boat ride in Brooklyn’s very own Venice.”

The complex cleanup, which will start in either 2016 or 2017, will involve dredging nearly 600,000 cubic yards of toxin-laden muck out of the canal. In some spots contaminated sediment lurking on the canal's bottom will be covered with a mixture of clay, sand, gravel and stone that will remove some pollutants and also keep contamination from spreading.

The hefty cost of the cleanup will be borne by the City of New York and more than two dozen other companies, such as National Grid, that have been deemed responsible for the pollution. The city has said it won't pitch in the $78 million to build the cleanup plan's sewage retention tanks, but officials noted Monday that EPA has the power to force local governments and private companies to cooperate with Superfund cleanups.

The agency is still identifying private companies responsible for polluting the canal, and divvying up the cost of the cleanup among them. "We do not want federal taxpayers footing the bill," Enck said. A National Grid spokeswoman said Monday that the company looks forward to contributing to a cleaner Gowanus Canal, but is still determining its role in the cleanup.

Aside from a cleaner canal, the cleanup will also create hundreds of jobs, Enck said, many of which will go to local residents. Locals will see a lot of activity in an around the canal, and EPA will work to keep noise and dust at a minimum, Enck said.

Officials noted Monday that crafting the cleanup plan involved years of public input, and that residents submitted some 1,800 public comments after EPA released the proposed cleanup plan in Dec. 2012.

An active group of neighbors and business owners, the Gowanus Canal Community Advisory Group, helped guide the EPA's efforts.  CAG member Marlene Donnelly noted that residents didn't get everything they asked for in the final cleanup plan. Locals had asked for a 100 percent reduction in raw sewage flowing into the canal, but the EPA's final plan will reduce sewage by 58 to 74 percent.

But Donnelly said the release of the finalized cleanup plan was a day to celebrate.

"For three years we've been hemming and hawing about how we're going to do this — now we're going to do it," Donnelly said. "We just don't want to find feces floating in the canal."