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Superfund or Superbad? Let the Explainer explain it all to you

The Brooklyn Paper

People have lots of questions about a proposal to make the Gowanus Canal a federal Superfund site, so sit back and let the Explainer learn you a thing or two:

A Superfund? That sounds awesome, but what is it?

Congress created it in 1980 after the Love Canal and Times Beach disasters of the late 1970s, in which hazardous chemicals leaked into people’s homes.

Why should the Gowanus be on that list? And why now?

The 1.8-mile canal is a laden with heavy metals, PCBs, coal tar and other nasty sediments that settled on the canal’s bed after a century of intense industrial use. Gov. Paterson nominated the Gowanus to be on the Superfund list in December — though his motives may not have been entirely clean (some say he just wanted the feds to relieve the state of the cost of the clean-up).

Who decontaminates these sites?

The Environmental Protection Agency tries to charge the polluters or owners of polluted land for the clean-up. Taxpayer money is also available, but the EPA says that the private sector pays for 70 percent of all clean-up costs. The EPA says it does not go after individual residential homeowners on or near Superfund sites to pay.

So why would anyone oppose that?

Toll Brothers, which wants to build 447 apartments adjacent to the Gowanus, is in the midst of a lobbying blitz to block the Superfund. The developer says that Superfund designation forever stigmatizes a site and that the clean-up will take too long. Other developers and some construction unions are quietly wringing their hands as real-estate prospects shrivel up before their very eyes.

What’s Mayor Bloomberg’s beef?

He says that Superfund designation will discourage private investment in an area he wants to transform into a residential community. His office also says that EPA’s involvement will delay already formalized plans to improve conditions in the canal.

How do opponents counter that argument?

They say only the federal government has the manpower and resources to clean the canal from head to mouth and they’re skeptical that private developers, eager to make a buck, will aim for the highest levels of cleanliness.

So who’s right?

It’s unclear, but here’s some additional bits of persuasion: The average site that’s placed on the Superfund list isn’t fully clean for 13 years. And some clean-ups take much longer. The Hudson River near Albany, which is inflicted with PCBs from General Electric, was placed on the list in 1984 and won’t be clean until 2015 — at the earliest.

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Reader Feedback

Troll Brother from Anywhere but Gowanus says:
Would I live there? Of course not. But you can trust us -- it'll be safe. Leave it to private industry to take care of -- just like the mortgage and banking business.
April 16, 2009, 11:22 am
Troll Twin Two from Another Planet says:
Troll Brother One is exactly right: Bloomberg and the rest, just like banks, want to gloss over their toxic assets long enough to make another killing before they skip town ahead of the bill.
April 16, 2009, 1:44 pm
Julia from Gowanus says:
I have news for Toll Bros. Everybody already knows that the Gowanus is seriously toxic. I just walked across the Carool Street bridge and looked at the water near the site where Toll hopes to build. Have they looked at the water? Aren't they luxury home builders? Who are they planning to sell to? People who don't look at where they are buying? And right across the canal from the Toll site is a large CSO, where the sewage drains out into the canal when there is a heavy rainfall. There would be more stigma on the area if, now that it has been nominated as a Superfund site, they fight against the most comprehensive cleanup possible, which only the EPA Superfund can deliver! As far as timeframe - so what? As long as they do the best job they can! By the way, some people get some of that water in their basements when the banks of the Gowanus flood over - it is in a floodzone. Wouldn't everybody want that water cleaned up???!!!!
April 18, 2009, 8:34 pm
observer from none says:
The amount of misinformation and half truths regarding this issues is amazing... EPA has no intention to clean the water of the canal.. their efforts will focus on sediment contamination from historic coal tar sites along the canal.. this contamination lies anywhere from 5 -15 ft below the surface sediments... the lawsuits that will sort out liability for this contamination and who untimately pays could take decades to sort out..
April 23, 2009, 11:22 am
Kathy Appel from Carroll Gardens says:
I have lived on Degraw Street for over 30 years.
When we first moved to the neighborhood, the odors coming from the Canal were hard to ignore.
During this time, the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation has been awarded funds to study the reasons for the contamination and has improved the situation. There is certainly a long way to go, but why bring in the Superfund designation when the Bloomberg Administration has set aside monies to begin the process imminently. The Superfund designation will only delay the process.
July 15, 2009, 11:57 am

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