The EPA has decided to designate the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn a Superfund clean-up site.
The window over my desk stares out at the raised Gowanus Expressway, nicely framing the Statue of Liberty beneath it about three miles off. The statue is obscured, though, when a drawbridge over the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn lifts to allow boats through.
For about a century after the canal's construction in the 1860s, oil, chemical and manufacturing companies along its 1.8-mile length accounted for the bulk of those boats, and the waterway paid the price for hosting such industries: the EPA has decided to designate it a Superfund clean-up site, a move which will hold the polluters financially responsible and theoretically result in its cleanup within a decade or so.
The designation, one of ten sites designated a Superfund National Priority by EPA, was met with disapproval by officials in Mayor Bloomberg's administration, as they had preferred to undertake the cleanup without the EPA's help. Of course, that plan would have involved voluntary financial support of the companies that might have done the polluting, which, for some reason, seems unlikely to have worked particularly well. According to the New York Times, the EPA has already identified seven companies along with the city of New York and the US Navy as being potentially responsible for the canal's contamination.
The EPA says that most industrial and polluting activity has stopped around the canal, but, well, that picture to the right of a scrap heap directly next to the canal was taken yesterday, as I walked across the canal at 9th Street. As dirty as the canal's waters are, though, some life (like oysters) still does thrive there. The Superfund designation could help bring it back even further.
One objection the city had to a Superfund-driven cleanup was the apparent stigma of attaching that word to it, and what that might to do commercial or residential development along the canal. But the EPA administrator to the region, Judith Enck, pointed out that “Banks look at the environmental conditions of the properties. It is not a secret in Brooklyn that the Gowanus is contaminated. The notion that Superfund is going to create a stigma just doesn’t hold up.”
Looking out the window now, the drawbridge refuses to rise, leaving this section of the Gowanus boat-free for at least a little while. And hopefully, soon it might be... wow, let's see what they found there... polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons-free; heavy metals-free; pesticides-free; polychlorinated biphenyls-free; volatile organic compounds-free. Yeah, that would be good.
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Photo credits: Dave Levitan.