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Keeping Up With The Superfund

A panel at the Museum of the City of New York discusses Brooklyn's two Superfund listings and their potential repercussions.

Keeping Up With The Superfund Keeping Up With The Superfund Keeping Up With The Superfund Keeping Up With The Superfund Keeping Up With The Superfund Keeping Up With The Superfund Keeping Up With The Superfund

A week after the that confirmed just how filthy the Gowanus Canal really is, conversation surrounding the severely polluted waterway has turned to how the canal’s federal Superfund designation will affect the neighborhood in the short term.

Last year, the canal became a Superfund site, but while the designation means that in the longterm the waterway will only become cleaner, in the interim area residents and businesses are wondering just how a report confirming the widespread existence of more than a dozen contaminants in the waterway will affect the neighborhood.

“There’s no question that it affects the investment decision,” said Alan Bell, principal and co-founder Hudson Companies, one of five developers involved in the seven-acre Gowanus Green project on the Public Place site. “In a risk-averse world, the rare loan officer is going to bring to his chief credit officer major funding for a new funding next to a superfund site, whatever the merits of the facts on the ground.”

Bell was a panelist at an event entitled “NYC Superfund: Toxic Solution or Toxic Label?” held Tuesday night at the Museum of the City of New York.

The event was designed to address concerns about both the Newtown Creek and the Gowanus, but the Gowanus drew the larger share of the event’s attention. 

The panelists included Bell; Walter Mugdan, Superfund Division Director at the Environmental Protection Agency; Kathleen Schmid, Director of the Newtown Creek Alliance; and Carter Strickland, Jr., the New York City Department of Environmental Protection’s Deputy Commissioner for Sustainability.

One of the chief issues addressed, as implied by the panel’s title, was whether the Superfund label creates a stigma that drives away future investment.

In response to this argument, the EPA’s Walter Mugdan suggested that in cases of such infamous contamination as the Gowanus, the promise of a thorough remediation from the Superfund listing should in fact encourage development. 

“I’m here to suggest that if you know an area is contaminated, and any wise person should know that about the Gowanus Canal, then in the longer term, knowing that it’s going to be cleaned up and cleaned up well may actually be a more beneficial outcome, although it’s a question of timing.”

One of the most visible illustrations of this stigma was the case of Toll Brothers, who pulled out of a massive, $250 million residential development project almost as soon as the Gowanus Superfund listing was official.           

Even for projects that are sticking it out, the road will not be easy.

Just before the Superfund listing was announced, Gowanus Green, which plans 770 residential units (70% of them affordable housing), was on the verge of going through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP) to rezone its parcel from industrial use.

“We were almost done with our Environmental Impact Statement,” Bell said the day after the panel, “and the city just stopped and said ‘Well, we can’t proceed now because we don’t know what EPA’s findings are going to be, and we don’t want to go through a land disposition and then find out later on that EPA thinks that this is an unhealthy environment.’”

Bell says that one positive effect to come out of the Superfund process is that last week’s Remedial Investigation report found that the air along the canal’s banks does not pose a health threat to nearby residents. His ULURP can now proceed, a year later.

Back in Brooklyn, businesses along the Gowanus industrial corridor are bracing themselves for potential consequences of the Superfund label and the work that will accompany it. Josh Keller, executive director of the South Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation, echoes the real estate worries about financing for existing businesses.

“[We’re concerned about] the eligibility of businesses to get insurance or bank loans, being on a federally designated superfund site, where there would be work going on, and there would be litigation in process. This adds an element of risk.”

 Another potential concern for Keller is the disruption of business along the canal.

EPA and city officials have already appeared at work facilities to do testing. If dredging is a major part of the remediation, which looks likely, Keller said barging on the canal would be obstructed.

“Because people would have to now utilize trucks, it’s going to add traffic, and it’s going to add cost into their plan,” he said.

Mary Mears, a spokesperson for the EPA, said that the agency will try to minimize this kind of disruption. “Making the presumption that there would be some dredging, which I think is a fair presumption to make, we would design it in such a way that we wouldn’t be disrupting the barge traffic and the canal traffic that is so important, obviously, to the economy of the area.”

While most of the fretting about the economic effects of the Superfund designation has taken place on the scale of large development projects and industrial businesses, concerns have been raised about property values of private residents as well.

Yet homeowner and blogger is not alarmed.

“I think that everybody has known for decades that we live not only next to a toxic site, but also next to an open sewer,” said Kelly, who lives two blocks from the canal and was active in the push to obtain the Superfund listing.

“I just walked across the canal, and hey, you see condoms floating by, you see feces floating by, and we’ve lived with that for decades. You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to realize that this is not a clean body of water.”

 The EPA has only just embarked on a long project that will take years to complete. Most of the decisions on how the cleanup will proceed have not yet been made, so ideas about the Superfund’s impact are largely speculative at this point.

But judging from the remedial investigation report released last week, one thing is for sure: definitely don’t eat the fish.

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