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In anticipation of the July 8th close of the public comment period for the designation of the Gowanus Canal as a Superfund site, City Hall was given the opportunity to answer its critics regarding its opposition to the naming. The following questions were submitted to this newspaper by Friends and Residents of the Greater Gowanus, a grassroots group wholeheartedly supportive of the designation, and one that views the city’s alternative plan with a jaundiced eye. Daniel Walsh, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Environmental Remediation provides the answers.
Q. The city’s basis for the alternative plan seems to be to avoid the “stigma” of Superfund listing. What is the difference between being a proposed Superfund site, and an actual Superfund listing? The reality of the toxicity exists no matter what the site is called, the pro−designation contingent contends.
A. The city’s goal is to clean the Gowanus Canal to a Superfund−level standard as fast and efficiently as possible. This is the basis for the creation of the Alternative Cleanup Plan, which the city believes will clean up the canal faster than Superfund, and will avoid the major shortfalls of the Superfund program. Superfund’s track record for urban waterway clean−ups is poor. In fact, the two large Superfund sites in the region — the Hudson and Passaic Rivers — have been on the list for nearly 30 years and have yet to be fully cleaned. The city’s proposal aims to complete remediation at the site in less than 10 years.
It is well established the a Superfund designation itself, and not the mere presence of contamination, can have a significant and long−lasting stigmatizing effect on nearby communities. Property values can decline and the designation can be a red flag to potential lenders and insurers – making it very difficult for owners to access traditional markets to refinance homes and obtain insurance.
Q. The city’s environmental concern regarding Gowanus has not been historically good, your critics allege. They delayed the flushing tunnel work that should have been completed by now. Why should the community believe that the city is really acting in good faith now?
A. This is not a trust us scenario. Under the Alternative Cleanup Plan, the city would enter into binding agreements with the federal government, including specifically defined milestones, and submit to the highest level of oversight by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Therefore, the city’s commitment to the cleanup of the Gowanus Canal would not merely be based in good faith but rather in legally binding agreements that would compel the city to continue cleanup regardless of budgetary constraints.
Q. The EPA has said that there is no reason why the city cannot proceed with their flushing tunnel work under Superfund listing − so why is the city threatening the opposite? That Superfund listing gets in the way of work already going on?
A. The city was concerned that the Flushing Tunnel and other combined sewage overflow−related (CSO) work in the canal could have been found to be inconsistent with a remedial plan that EPA could develop if the canal is listed as a Superfund site. Currently, the city has $175 million of CSO−related capital work shovel−ready in the canal. The city has received repeated assurances, including written assurances from the EPA and state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) that the CSO work will not be incompatible with any future Superfund remedy, and the city is prepared to move forward with the work.
Q. Walter Mugdan of the EPA has stated that the city’s plan is more complex − it has a “lot of moving parts”. Why do they want to add more complexity to a procedure that is already complex as is?
A. While the cleanup will be complex no matter how it is done, the Alternative Cleanup Plan is no more complex that the traditional Superfund approach. The question is whether an alternative method is worth getting a Superfund−level cleanup completed faster and more efficiently than Superfund. We have carefully considered this question and think the answer is clearly yes. And we are not the only locality to come to this conclusion. Alternative models have already been successfully implemented in 45 other locations throughout the country.
Q. The city’s plan relies potentially responsible parties (PRP) to voluntarily pay for cleanup. What gives the city confidence that this will happen? What happens if one PRP does not?
A. The traditional Superfund approach is adversarial by nature. It is in each company’s interest to divert blame so as to pay as little as possible. Our alternative approach is collaborative and incentivizes cooperation. To begin with, our approach reduces costs by bringing additional federal funds to the table. The Alternative Cleanup Plan also allows potentially responsible parties (PRPs) to focus their resources on cleanup, as opposed to the Superfund litigation. And by keeping the Army Corps of Engineers involved, the Alternative Cleanup Plan retains the possibility of obtaining federal matching funds under the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) for part of the work. It is also important to note, our plan retains the right to sue companies if they fail to come to the table willingly.
Q. An overriding bone of contention is the perception that the city concerns itself more with the developers’ agenda than the health and wishes of the community at large. Would the city be as involved if millions of dollars in private investment were not on the line?
A. Absolutely. The public health and welfare of the community remains the primary goal of the Alternative Cleanup Plan. Our plan has included and will continue to include an extensive community outreach strategy to ensure that community stakeholders remain informed and involved in all stages of the canal’s investigation, design, and remediation.
Q. Is the city aware of the “groundswell of support” for Superfund? Do you check the responses on the EPA posted on the EPA Web site?
A. The city has been meeting with various community groups and other stakeholders, including local elected officials, and participating in public meetings to hear the concerns of the community. One thing is clear: Brooklyn wants, and deserves, a Gowanus Canal that is clean and usable. It came as no surprise to us that potential federal intervention attracted initial support. But many people have rightly expressed concerns about the potential risks of a Superfund listing on the Gowanus neighborhood, particularly if the clean−up becomes bogged−down in legal wrangling. On the other hand, we have seen that support for the city’s Alternative Cleanup Plan has grown as people learn about the many benefits of this approach.
Q. The city’s slogan for Superfund listing is “What’s the hurry?” A very confusing message, critics allege. One of the city’s criticisms is that Superfund is too slow to get things done − the city can do it quicker. Then they ask “what’s the hurry?” when the EPA says it is ready to start now. Can you clarify these seemingly contrary positions?
A. The confusion arises because this question has been taken out of context. The question the city has asked is “What’s the hurry to list the Gowanus Canal as a Superfund site if doing so prematurely cuts off resources to get the clean−up done sooner and more efficiently than Superfund?”
That would clearly be the result here, because a Superfund listing now would very likely end the involvement of the Army Corps of Engineers and cutoff the possibility of WRDA funding to contribute to the clean-up. This approach makes no sense if we can keep the Army Corps and the possibility of WRDA funding alive — and lose no time on the clean-up if WRDA funding does not become available over the next few years. The city’s plan achieves all of these goals.
©2009 Community Newspaper Group
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