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Trump Presidency Could Stall Gowanus Canal Cleanup, Experts Say

By Leslie Albrecht | November 30, 2016 9:14am
 President-elect Donald Trump's policy plans for the environment could significantly slow the Gowanus Canal cleanup, observers say.
President-elect Donald Trump's policy plans for the environment could significantly slow the Gowanus Canal cleanup, observers say.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

GOWANUS — The long-awaited federal cleanup of the Gowanus Canal could come to a near-halt during the Donald Trump administration, but state environmental officials vowed Tuesday that their agency stands ready to step in and fight for the blighted waterway.

President-elect Trump said on the campaign trail that he wants clean air and clean water, but also claimed that global warming was a "concept" created by the Chinese and vowed to dismantle the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

That last promise is one that has Gowanus worried.

The EPA is leading the $506 million cleanup of the polluted Gowanus Canal, a complex process that started back in 2010 when the EPA named the canal a Superfund site. The actual cleanup itself is still in its early stages and wasn't on track to be finished until at least 2022.

Just this month, EPA-led contractors fished trash and toxic sludge called “black mayonnaise” out of the canal. The sludge is so hazardous it had to be mixed with concrete to be safely transported to a far-off facility. Its presence hasn't dampened real estate investment in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, where Trump's son-in-law and close adviser Jared Kushner is among the developers with projects underway.

"The policies of the EPA are intrinsically tied to the future of the Gowanus Canal," said Community Board 6 district manager Craig Hammerman. "We're all going to be watching very carefully what the new leadership at EPA is going to do."

While actually doing away with the entire EPA could prove challenging for Trump, it would be relatively easy for the new administration, with help from Congress, to halt funding for the EPA's federal Superfund program and give the states control of cleanups, said Larry Schnapf, chair of the environmental law section of the New York State Bar Association.

That would put the Gowanus Canal cleanup in the hands of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which has been weakened in recent years by budget cuts and staff reductions, Schnapf said. "That raises the question, does DEC really have the resources to adequately fund or perform the cleanup?" Schnapf said.

But the state's environmental enforcement agency said Tuesday it's ready to fight for a cleaner Gowanus, no matter what Trump has in store at the federal level. DEC's own Superfund program, which is separate from EPA's, is one of the most aggressive in the country and got a 10-year, $1 billion funding commitment from state lawmakers last year, a spokeswoman said.

“Safely cleaning up and returning blighted industrial sites like the Gowanus Canal to productive use is critical to the economic revitalization of communities in New York and across the nation," DEC spokeswoman Erica Ringewald said.

"The incoming administration would be wise to recognize the importance of the federal Superfund law and not abandon the communities faced with environmental hazards and the substantial progress we have made since the 1970s."

She added, "The Department of Environmental Conservation will continue to aggressively enforce the state’s environmental laws to protect the public and the environment and hold polluters accountable."

And even if the EPA's Superfund program is defunded at the federal level, it's possible EPA's cleanup could still continue, the DEC spokeswoman and others said.

That's because Superfund cleanups are paid for by the polluters who did the environmental damage (or their current owners if the companies have changed hands). The term "Superfund" refers to the pot of federal money set aside to pay for cleanups where polluters can't be tracked down. Those dollars aren't being used in Gowanus, where the two biggest polluters, the City of New York and National Grid, will foot most of the bill and do the cleanup work.

On the other hand, those polluters are only doing the cleanup work and paying for it because the Obama Administration's EPA has ordered them to do so. A Trump-run EPA may be more sympathetic to polluters' complaints about the cost and extent of the cleanup, and could require them to do less to make the canal cleaner, Schnapf and others said.

For example, the City of New York has sparred with EPA over its role in the cleanup. Though the city initially refused to do so, it's now following an EPA order to build massive underground tanks that will eventually keep raw sewage from flowing into the canal. Under a more polluter-friendly EPA, or with state authorities at the helm, the city could push back more against such orders or even get the existing order modified, observers said.

"DEC doesn’t have the same unilateral authority as EPA does," Schnapf said. "I could see [polluters] trying to take advantage of DEC's limited authority to push back."

Sean Dixon, an attorney with the environmental watchdog group Riverkeeper, said he foresees delays and backpedaling for the Gowanus Canal cleanup under Trump's EPA, but said the canal has something going for it that other Superfund sites lack: an active and engaged community.

"We actually have a really robust community here in Gowanus," Dixon said. "If the federal government slows down its work, we have a lot of local momentum, so I think we’ll get through it."

EPA officials declined to comment for this story, but a source at the agency said the canal's Superfund status ushered in an era of intense real estate investment in the neighborhood, and speculated that a president who is also a New York City real estate developer would be unlikely to reverse that.

With Trump's son-in-law among the developers banking on the neighborhood's future, the president-elect is likely well aware of the opportunities in Gowanus.

A Trump spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.