GOWANUS — President Donald Trump's proposed budget cuts would undo decades of progress toward cleaning the toxin-riddled Gowanus Canal and send New York back to the "bad old days of choking smog and rampant pollution," state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said Tuesday.
Speaking just a few feet from the polluted canal — which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of cleaning under its Superfund program — Schneiderman blasted Trump's spending plan as "extraordinarily dangerous."
"We are facing now an unprecedented assault on the Superfund program," Schneiderman said, referring to Trump’s proposal to slash the Superfund budget by 30 percent.
"A hollowed out EPA with far fewer staff and an administrator who does not seem to care about environmental protection or believe in climate change could easily kneecap all efforts to clean up this canal and could have a devastating effect on Superfund sites where the cleanup hasn’t begun," Schneiderman said.
Schneiderman's dire warnings contrasted sharply with what local EPA officials told concerned Gowanus residents before Trump released his proposed cuts, and at least one critic said the attorney general's doomsday predictions were "overblown." But elected officials, neighborhood activists and environmental groups echoed Schneiderman's concern that the proposed cuts could be devastating for Gowanus.
The Gowanus Canal is one of 85 Superfund sites in New York State, along with Newtown Creek and the former Wolff-Allport Chemical Company in Ridgewood, Queens. Superfund sites are considered to be so contaminated that they present a threat to human health and are at the top of the government's priority list for cleanup.
Schneiderman vowed to "use the full power of my office" to force the EPA "to hold polluters accountable" in a March 9 letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
Trump's proposed federal spending cuts, released Thursday, are just the opening salvo in the budget process and will need congressional approval to move forward.
An EPA spokesman declined to comment to DNAinfo on Tuesday on Trump's proposed budget, saying it was too early in the process.
But EPA officials assured locals in January that the Superfund program was designed to withstand "the sways of political changes" and that Trump would have no effect on the Gowanus cleanup. That's because the canal's cleanup will be paid for by the polluters who befouled the canal, not the federal government. In the canal's case, the EPA identified 37 polluters — companies that once dumped waste into the canal or their modern-day descendants — to pay for the cleanup.
The two biggest polluters have been the City of New York, which is responsible for the sewage that still flows into the canal every time it rains, and National Grid, which bought a company that once dumped toxic coal tar and other harmful chemicals into the canal.
To comply with the Superfund cleanup, the city has agreed to build two massive underground tanks to keep raw sewage out of the canal. The city has already committed $80 million toward that project and there is an additional $735 million for it in the 10-year capital plan, a DEP spokesman said Tuesday.
Ultimately, New Yorkers themselves will pay for the city's share of the cleanup in their water and sewer bills. Similarly, National Grid recently won permission to raise customers' monthly heating bills to help cover its share of the canal's cleanup costs.
Larry Schnapf, an environmental lawyer whose clients include Gowanus property owners, said Schneiderman was overstating the dire effects of Trump's proposed cuts on Gowanus. The money to pay for the Superfund cleanups of Gowanus, Newtown Creek and the Passaic and Hudson rivers is already set aside in special accounts that can't be touched by the federal budget process, Schnapf said.
"As long as the [polluter companies] are viable, there will always be monies for the cleanup," Schnapf said. "This is like political grandstanding. There is a concern here, but [Schneiderman is] overblowing it." However, there are "legitimate concerns" about how Trump's proposed cuts would affect Superfund sites that aren’t as far along in the process, Schnapf said.
But City Councilman Brad Lander pointed out Tuesday that even though polluters are on the hook to pay for the Gowanus Superfund cleanup, EPA staff still needs to administer the cleanup. Trump's proposed budget cuts spending on EPA administration, which could lead to significant delays for the canal cleanup, Lander and Schneiderman said.
"We don't need the federal government money to actually clean the canal, the polluters pay to clean the canal, but of course that only works if the EPA can administer the program," Lander said. "[EPA staff] has to be able to get the ball across the finish line … and get the cleanup underway."
The canal was declared a Superfund site in 2010, and while some members of the public mistakenly believe that means the cleanup is over, it's only just beginning.
The multi-step cleanup started last fall with the removal of debris such as old tires and boat parts from the canal. In late 2018 or 2019, dredgers will start scooping up the toxic sludge known as "black mayonnaise" that dwells on the canal's bottom.
Schneiderman said Trump's proposed EPA cuts would also mean "fewer cops on the beat to catch polluters and more scofflaws to pump pollution into our air." Though much of the Gowanus Canal's contamination is the result of industrial dumping decades ago, the canal still suffers assaults from polluters today. Just five months ago federal prosecutors fined a cesspool service company $900,000 for pouring raw sewage into the troubled waterway.
Lander noted that Trump's spending plan would eliminate entirely an EPA emergency response program that sent teams of inspectors to Gowanus in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to test water that had overflowed the canal's banks and flooded local basements.
"The EPA is not only an environmental agency, in cases like that, they’re a front line public health agency," Lander said. "They were there when we needed them."
The manmade 1.8-mile Gowanus Canal was built in the 1850s and suffered from more than a century of environmental abuse, with neighboring chemical plants dumping toxins into it. Today it's a stew of PAHs, PCBs, and other dangerous contaminants.
When the Superfund cleanup is finished, sometime around 2022 or so, the canal should be safe for boating but won't be clean enough to swim in.