05 March 2010

Gowanus Set for 10-12 Year Superfund Cleanup

Crain's New York Business
Ruling by EPA likely to derail development plans along the polluted Brooklyn waterway for foreseeable future; city had pushed alternative plan.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that it has designated Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal one of the country's most hazardous waste sites, a Superfund site. The decision was widely anticipated despite the opposition of local developers and New York City, which had its own plan to clean up the site.

“The goal is to ensure that polluters pay for clean up, not taxpayers,” said Judith Enck, regional administrator for the EPA, during a morning conference call with the press. “We concluded that there was not enough money to take the path that the city of New York and the development community had suggested.”

City officials expressed disappointment at the designation. "We had an innovative and comprehensive approach that was a faster route to a Superfund-level cleanup and would have avoided the issues associated with a Superfund listing," a spokesman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, noting that the city will work closely with the EPA. "Local residents and businesses raised concerns about the impact of a Superfund designation on their community, and we hope that the EPA will work with us to address those concerns as they move forward.”

The EPA received more than 1,300 comments from the public in regards to the site. After meeting with government and elected officials, members of the community, and businesses, the agency decided the best way to proceed would be to designate the Gowanus a Superfund site. According to Ms. Enck, the EPA estimates that the remediation of the canal will take between 10 to 12 years.

“Perhaps it is not fast enough for some, but it took many decades to create the level of pollution that is there,” she said. “We can give up one decade for future development of the site.”

During the call, the EPA identified 10 parties that took part in polluting the canal and would be responsible for paying for the clean up. They include National Grid (the successor company to Brooklyn Union Gas), Consolidated Edison, the city of New York, the U.S. Navy, and Chemtura Corp. The EPA did not say how much the cleanup will cost.

In December 2008, the state Department of Environmental Conservation requested that the EPA consider putting the canal on its Superfund priorities list, despite the city's own efforts to clean up and develop the area. After initial testing, the EPA decided last April that the city's plan was inadequate and said it would continue to consider the Gowanus Canal a Superfund site. Since then, a business group called Clean Gowanus Now Coalition, which opposes the Superfund designation, has been lobbying the governor's office to reverse its position and withdraw its request to the EPA. The group supports the city's plan to clean up and develop the site.

On Monday, developer Toll Brothers, a member of Clean Gowanus Now, said it would abandon its plan to develop a mixed income residential complex on the site if the canal was placed on the Superfund list. Last week, the coalition released the results of a survey which indicated that federal regulations put into place last year would make lending to homeowners within 3,000 feet of the canal impossible if Gowanus were designated a Superfund site.

The EPA argued Tuesday that it spoke to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and said the Superfund designation does not interfere with loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration for properties within 3,000 feet of the site. “Having the Gowanus listed as a Superfund site would not prevent FHA loans from being made,” said Ms. Enck.

“We are very disappointed,” said a spokesman for Clean Gowanus Now, adding that the group will explore legal options to reverse the decision but noted that, “We have to assume the designation will stick. We think this designation will have an adverse impact on the local economy. We are going to lose billions of dollars in development and thousands of jobs.”

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