Local elected officials and representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has been coordinating the process, spoke about the progress of the Superfund site.
Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez kicked off the town hall by noting that the community has been focusing on improving the toxic canal for decades.
“After everything that happened in our community, major projects should be led with the vision of our community,” she said. “It takes a whole village to make it happen the right way.”
She recalled the timeline of the $506 million project, which began as early as 2002, when a comprehensive study was funded through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 2006, the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, a local nonprofit organization, was formed.
It wasn’t until March 2010 that the EPA added the Gowanus Canal to its Superfund National Priorities List, making the cleanup a federal effort.
The Gowanus Canal, a man-made body of water, was completed in 1869 and used as a major transportation route for decades. Manufactured gas plants, mills, tanneries and chemical plants all operated along the canal, contributing to its contamination.
The Superfund process has multiple steps and takes more than a decade to complete. Natalie Loney, an EPA official working with the local community, said after a preliminary assessment and site inspection, the project went on to the Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Study stage, which determines the nature and extent of the contamination.
The project also identifies responsible parties, such as companies that have contributed to its contamination, to pay for the cleanup. One of the leading responsible parties is National Grid, which is involved in the Superfund process now.
Another source of contamination is from the combined sewer overflows (CSO), a combination of sewage and rainwater that flow into the canal when local infrastructure is overwhelmed after a heavy rain.
The EPA took samples of the contaminated sediments at the bottom of the canal, analyzed them and determined they were toxic, Loney said.
The agency then developed and evaluated cleanup options as part of the feasibility study. Their report described seven alternatives for cleaning up the site, and eventually narrowed it down to three.
After selecting the remedy, the EPA produced a document called the “Record of Decision,” which was developed with community input. Today, the Gowanus Canal cleanup is in the Remedial Design and Remedial Action phase.
According to EPA officials, after this step, which actually cleans the canal, the agency will monitor post-construction stages. Once the site poses no risk to humans or the environment, the EPA deletes the site from its Superfund list.
Walter Mugdan, director of Emergency and Remedial Response for Region 2 of the EPA, described the final cleanup plan approved by the EPA.
It involves removing contaminated sediment from the bottom of the canal by dredging, capping the dredged areas, implementing controls to prevent CSO from compromising the cleanup, and excavating and restoring the street basins. The contaminated sediment will be treated at an off-site facility.
National Grid will build a temporary replacement pool at Thomas Greene Park, which will operate until the process is complete. The company will also design and install a “cutoff wall” on Fulton Avenue.
New York City will be in charge of constructing two CSO tanks at a total cost of nearly $900 million to reduce the volume of overflow going into the canal. The final location will be decided by 2020, officials said, though the city is considering using eminent domain to acquire private property to build one retention tank.
“There will be a lot of lessons learned here,” Mugdan said. “This is an unbelievably complicated project.”
Velazquez said she expects a lot of new local jobs to be created during the project. She asked the EPA to create a “job training institute” to train and hire local workers.
The congresswoman also noted that while the federal government cut the Superfund program by $380 million, Congress restored the funding.
“No one should be concerned that the Superfund program won’t have the money to continue the work,” she said. “We are cleaning up the canal the right way.”
Councilman Brad Lander added that the process and progress on cleaning up the notoriously toxic canal has been “significant” so far.
“We’ll stick through it together for as long as it takes,” he said.