Gowanus Decision: Winners and Losers

Home Brooklyn Life Gowanus Decision: Winners and Losers

By Lenore Cho and Sudip P. Mukherjee

The federal Environmental Protection Agency put the Gowanus Canal on its list of Superfund sites on Tuesday. The 1.8-mile canal in the midst of Brooklyn has been contaminated by heavy industry over the last century. Now the feds are stepping in for the big clean-up. The decision is controversial and will have many repercussions.

Lenore Cho and Sudip Mukherjee delved into the discussion and found out who is for the Superfund declaration and who is against it and what their reasons are.

Pro Superfund:

Clean water activists, community groups and local politicians rejoiced about the declaration, which will likely require extensive clean-up over the next dozen years.

Riverkeeper, a New York watchdog group that studies polluted waterways, has long been an advocate of federal intervention at the canal. Josh Verleun, the group’s attorney and chief investigator, said the Superfund label is extremely helpful because it requires chief polluters named by the E.P.A. to pay for the cleanup activities.

“The E.P.A. can bring these companies to the table and make them financially responsible for their contaminants,” Verleun said. “The Gowanus Canal is a very contaminated site, in need of a complex, expensive remediation. Forcing big-time polluters to pay for their mistakes lightens the burden on federal funding.”

Verleun also worked with various neighborhood groups that strongly supported the idea of Superfund status for the canal, and said 85 percent of the respondents to the E.P.A.’s survey of residents living nearby said they approved of the idea.

One local group, called the Urban Divers Estuary Conservancy, works to promote community knowledge of, and participation in, the maintenance of the city’s coastal waters. For years, the group has worked with interested residents and area college professors to study the canal, including ways to clean up all the toxic pollution.

“We are very happy with the outcome and think the Superfund (designation) is the beginning of a pathway that leads to a cleaner, better Gowanus Canal,” said Ludger Balan, executive and environmental program director of the Urban Divers.

According to Balan, the waters in the canal are so contaminated that the bulkhead and land surrounding the canal are becoming eroded. Additionally, because of excess water and sewage pooled in the canal, there is more harmful bacterial content in the Gowanus than in any other body in New York City. “The Superfund will bring real efforts to controlling a dangerous problem in Brooklyn,” he said.

Many local businessmen and politicians, including Mayor Bloomberg, have been opposed to the Superfund designation. Some have said it would taint the reputation of the area, while others have fought for the Bloomberg administration’s plans for the Gowanus – including the use of Army Corps engineers to remove excess, foul-smelling sediment from the canal bed.

“The problem with the mayor’s [solution] is that it is based on a whole pile of assumptions that is unlikely to go anywhere,” said Jim Vogel, a spokesman for State Senator Velmanette Montgomery (D-18th District) who had earlier commended the E.P.A.’s announcement. “The mayor’s plan depends on a lot of resources we are not sure we can even get at this point,” Vogel said. “The Superfund is real, committed and will get the canal cleaned.”

As for notions that the federal government’s help will lead to lost real estate development, Verleun said prospective homeowners within New York State are already familiar with the canal’s reputation for pollution and smell.

“It’s notorious for being the poster child of New York’s contaminated waterways, so of course some people outside of the area with no knowledge of the city might look down on the area,” he said.

“But people invest time in researching the areas where they move. And with the Superfund, I believe a thoroughly exhaustive cleanup of the Gowanus Canal will make it a more desirable place to live.”

Anti Superfund:

The EPA’s announcement struck a blow to the Brooklyn housing and development community.

Toll Brothers Inc. announced it would halt a proposed development along the canal, saying the stigma of a Superfund label would scare off potential buyers. The builders in 2006 began plans for a mixed-use luxury development, with 447 housing units, 2,000 square feet of retail space, and a landscaped park on Bond Street, along the banks of the waterway.

“We’re very disappointed,” said David Von Spreckelsen, senior vice president at Toll Brothers. “We thought that the mayor had a viable alternative cleanup plan we were pushing for. Obviously the EPA didn’t feel that way. Designating the site as Superfund is really going to set the canal back for many, many years, – decades probably – until we see it get cleaned up.”

The move was seen as a setback for others in the business community, too. The Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing and development, has been fighting the Superfund status since the E.P.A. announced it was under consideration last April.

“It’s devastating, because people do not realize what is attached to this,” said Bill Appel, executive director of the group. “It’ll be years before they begin any cleanup because the EPA operates using litigation. It’s a loss to the community. Any development will just come to a halt.”

Appel’s group backed a plan by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration to clean up the canal using city money. The city had offered its own plan to clean up the canal, using $175 of its own funds.

“We’re disappointed,” said Marc LaVorgna, a city spokesman. “The stigma can cause divestment and deter development. We had an approach that would get us to a Superfund-level cleanup faster by avoiding any potential major litigation.”

Appel says residents in the area would be hardest hit. “We advocate and do our best to develop affordable housing in the Gowanus area, that will just come to a halt,” Appel said.

Appel and his group are members of the Clean Gowanus Now! Coalition, a group of affordable housing and business advocates. The group points to a survey of major financial lenders last year who said it would be nearly impossible for a buyer to obtain a mortgage on a residential property within 3,000 feet of an E.P.A. Superfund site.

“All development has been stopped today,” said a longtime area realtor, who declined to be named. “Economically I think this is not good. This is going to cause economic hardships for people.”

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