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Gowanus Canal Cleanup Faces Delay if City Doesn't Close Park, EPA Says

By Leslie Albrecht | October 27, 2015 2:18pm
 Pollution is visible in the water near the Carroll Street bridge on the Gowanus Canal. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the Superfund cleanup of the canal could face delays if the city doesn't follow the EPA's suggestion on where to build an underground sewage retention tank.
Pollution is visible in the water near the Carroll Street bridge on the Gowanus Canal. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the Superfund cleanup of the canal could face delays if the city doesn't follow the EPA's suggestion on where to build an underground sewage retention tank.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

GOWANUS — The long-awaited cleanup of the Gowanus Canal could be delayed by at least a year and a half if the city doesn't follow the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's recommendation to dig up a public pool and install a sewage tank underneath, EPA officials charged Monday.

The delay could be avoided if the city agrees to build the tank at the "Double D" pool and Thomas Greene Park, EPA Region 2 Superfund Director Walter Mugdan told Community Board 6 members.

"Our biggest concern is to try to keep this project moving, and it may not seem so to you, but to us, we have been moving at warp speed on this project, and we don’t want to be slowed down,” Mugdan said.

The sewage retention tank would keep raw sewage from flowing into the canal, which is a major source of pollution in the troubled waterway.

The city's Department of Environmental Protection opposed the U.S. EPA's plan to locate the tank in public space, saying it could deprive the community of critical recreational resources for as long as nine years until the park and pool are rebuilt. It's also a controversial proposal among some locals.

Instead, the city suggests installing the tank on two pieces of private property near the head of the canal at Butler Street.

“We believe two things are paramount — one is that the community get the biggest cleanup possible, and two, the community doesn’t have an added burden of a significant impact and loss of park land both in time and space,” DEP spokesman Eric Landau said at Monday's meeting.

The EPA declared the heavily polluted Gowanus Canal a Superfund site in 2010 and targeted it for cleanup. In 2013, the agency released its official recommendation on how to complete the cleanup, and the massive decontamination effort is now being designed. The cleanup won't start until 2017 and the whole thing won't be finished until around 2022.

The $506 million Superfund cleanup has two main components: first it will remove a thick layer of contaminated sludge from the bottom of the canal, then it will keep the canal from getting recontaminated by cutting the amount of raw sewage that still flows into the waterway during storms. To accomplish that, EPA tapped the city to build two underground sewage retention tanks that will keep waste-laced water out of the canal.

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The clash between the city and EPA over the canal started during the Bloomberg administration. The city fought the canal's Superfund designation and initially refused to build the sewage tanks. The DEP later complied with the feds' request, and the city analyzed 81 possible sites for the tanks around Gowanus.

EPA officials say Thomas Greene Park and the "Double D" pool are a logical choice for the larger of the two tanks because the pool is on top of contaminated land that will probably have to be dug up anyway and cleaned by National Grid, the gas company responsible for the property.

But in June, city officials told the EPA they disagree with that proposal and "strongly prefer" putting the tank on two pieces of private property across the street from the park, closer to the canal, Mugdan said.

The EPA worries that the city's choice will cause delays because it's on private property and DEP will probably have to use eminent domain to acquire it, Mugdan said. That's a lengthy process that can be challenged in court, which could lead to further setbacks, Mugdan said.

The EPA estimates that the city would have to shell out about $100 million to buy the land, while DEP officials think it will cost between $32 and $64 million, Mugdan said. The city has said it could take up to three and a half years to acquire the property, the EPA's Mugdan said.

The EPA has final say on the tank locations, and Mugdan said the agency expects to announce its choice "soon."

He noted Monday that locals gave EPA a standing ovation when the agency announced it was designating the Gowanus Canal a Superfund site in 2010, and that he told his colleagues to savor the moment because the positive feelings would one day end.

"That time has come — we're going to piss somebody off no matter what decision we make," Mugdan said.