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How to Start Cleaning Up a Superfund Site

The Gowanus canal has been polluted for decades, but now the clean-up process is starting.

In New York City, public life is conducted in school auditoriums. They’re the only spaces big enough to hold the crowds that show up to public meetings about contentious neighborhood issues. So on Tuesday night, grown-ups filed into the Carroll School to hear the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan for cleaning up the Gowanus canal. The agency declared the canal a Superfund site in 2010, and in December, it released a draft of the feasibility study for its next actions. Tuesday’s presentation laid out the next steps to the community. It will take another six to eight months for the EPA to come up with a proposed plan. The agency plans to publish its recommendation before the end of the year.

The Gowanus canal has been polluted for decades, and it took years for the city, state and federal governments to fight out who might take responsibility for it. Now the clean-up process is starting. But with an environmental issue of such long standing, the clean up can be just as complicated and politically difficult as getting an agency like the EPA to commit to fixing the problem to begin with.

Before Tuesday’s meeting started, the EPA’s Walter Mugdan, who directs the agency’s environmental planning and protection in this region, instructed the audience to interrupt the presenters if they needed an acronym explained. Environmental remediation requires many acronyms. In the bottom silt of the Gowanus Canal, the EPA found PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), and NAPLs (non-aqueous phase liquids). NAPL rhymes with apple and in the case of the Gowanus means, more or less, coal tar. The canal is also contaminated with barium, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel and silver, but the EPA can shorthand those with an acronym, as “metals.” There’s also CSO — combined sewer overflow — which is what’s dumped into the canal when rainfall is heavy and household waste mixes with storm water. PRG stands for Preliminary Remediation Goals. “Because we need another acronym,” an EPA presenter quipped, RTA stands for Remediation Target Areas.

But meetings like this one have been going on for years in this neighborhood, and no one asked for a refresher on acronyms. Instead, community members asked questions like “Who’s going to pay for all of this?” and “What’s the point of cleaning up the canal if the land surrounding it is still polluted?” (One of the canal’s many pollution problems is contaminants flowing in with groundwater or street runoff.)

When the EPA took responsibility for cleaning up the canal, it allowed this neighborhood to start moving forward with a long-desired goal. While momentum towards the clean-up grew, the city worked on rezoning the area around the canal, developers imagining large condo projects milled about, and plans began for erecting a Whole Foods in a nearby brownfield. The industrial neighborhood became an increasingly hip zone, with artists’ studios and music venues opening up. Now, finally, there’s a little more clarity about what direction the clean-up is heading, which influences decisions by developers to build, potential home-owners to buy, businesses to open up. People can start to move on with their lives.

But it’s also not so simple. Just because the EPA has taken charge of one set of problems doesn’t mean it’s fixing every environmental issue left over from the area’s industrial past. “For our organization, it has liberated us to have a final determination about a clean-up for the canal itself,” says Hans Hesselein, who works for the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, a local environmental group that’s been pushing for years for the canal to be dealt with. Now that the EPA has taken responsibility for the canal itself — or, more specifically, the contaminated silt at its bottom — Hesselein’s organization can focus on issues like storm water management (that’s dealing with CSO) and with watershed improvements. The answer to the question about the pollution on the surrounding land is that the state environmental department is dealing with it. The GCC is still worried about CSO, because that’ll be the city’s responsibility to fix. Although clean-up of the canal is moving forward, in some ways, it has yet to begin.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user listenmissy.

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