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EPA Held Public Meeting on Gowanus Canal Clean-Up, Locals Concerned With Recontamination

Nearly 200 community members attended the presentation of the EPA’s Draft Feasibility Study.

The auditorium of on Smith Street was filled on Tuesday night for the Environmental Protection Agency's presentation of the Draft Feasibility Study for dredging the Gowanus Canal.

In a meeting that lasted over two hours, the EPA outlined the technical process of cleaning up the polluted waterway and explained the results of the study, one of the early stages of a potential 15-year project to rid the Gowanus Canal of its toxins that endanger local wildlife and community health. 

Although the community reacted positively to the EPA's presentation and their draft proposal, several attendees were concerned about the . When it rains, raw sewage spews from the old sewer systems, and also contaminated ground water and street runoff further pollute the Gowanus.

The risk of recontamination is largely due to the fact that the from continuing to pollute the canal, not the EPA, and as of now, nothing is being done to address the CSOs. 

"There is an issue with the city, and that's a problem that needs to be addressed," said Marlene Donnelly, one of the nearly 200 locals that attended the event. "We have been paying into the system...and they have not made any significant investment in our infrastructure."

The EPA has asked the city to assist with a complete sewer overhaul, but city officials said that they have met all environmental obligations.

"We have not yet achieved a consensus with the city," said Christos Tsiamis, the EPA's Gowanus Canal Project Manager. "We are working hard."

Councilmember Brad Lander, who attended the presentation, told the crowd that he is committed to working with his colleagues and the EPA to combat the CSO issue. 

The Draft Feasibility Study, , revealed that the canal, , is contaminated with carcinogens like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), non-aqueous phase liquids (NAPLs) and heavy metals like copper, lead and mercury. 

The highest concentrations of toxins were found near the three former Manufactured Gas Plants (MGPs), Fulton, Public Place and Metropolitan, located along the canal.

The EPA said that the canal bed is composed of a layer of native sediment, mainly contaminated with NAPLs, which is underneath a ten-foot deep layer of soft sediment, described as having the consistency of mayonnaise.

The “black mayonnaise” contains most of the toxins, including NAPLs, PAHs, PCBs and heavy metals. All of the EPA’s suggestions for ridding the canal’s century-old pollutants include removing some of the soft sediment and the agency has decided that disposing of all the coal tar sludge is necessary in order to avoid the risk of continued contamination.

Based on the results of the study, the EPA recommended two options, both of which include dredging all of the canal’s toxic sludge, and . 

One of the plans also included solidifying the top of the native sediment, especially near the MGPs, to ensure that the NAPLs do not bubble up into the water.

Once the canal is dredged, the soft sediment needs to be taken somewhere. The EPA has looked at several options, including disposing it in a landfill and cogeneration, solidifying the sediment by combining it with other materials which then can be used as fuel for electricity.

Tuesday night's audience, as described by Elias Rodriguez, the EPA’s press officer, was "a very sophisticated crowd," and, after the presentation, the question and answer period lasted over half an hour, with several questions from attendees, and quick, precise answers from representatives of the EPA. 

In addition to a barrage of questions about the city's responsibility to prevent continued contamination from CSOs, many questions dealt with the project's affect on the community, including hiring local workers for the cleanup, and maintaining commercial use of the canal during the seven-to-nine-year process, as well as the realities of financing the project, which is estimated to cost between $351 and $456 million. 

Since the project is still in its draft stage, many of these questions went without concrete answers, although the EPA assured the crowd that there would be plenty more opportunities to discuss these issues.

Walter Mugdan, division director of the Superfund, was encouraged by the community turn-out.

"We had a full house and people stayed to the end," he said. "I hope that people felt that we were responsive."

The next steps include a feedback period and a treatability study to choose a proposed plan. Once the plan is chosen, there will be a 30-day public comment period before an official plan is selected. 

Ludger K. Balan, local resident and director of Urban Divers Estuary Conservancy, felt that the EPA's Draft Feasibility Study was directly in line with his concerns.

"We certainly like EPA’s position on this, especially our mutual concerns about the city," he said. "We can't afford these extreme and dangerous conditions."

For anyone who missed the meeting but would like to see a presentation of the Feasibility Study, there will be another meeting next Monday, January 30, at 6 p.m. at Borough Hall.

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