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New Pilot Test for Public Place Site Coal Tar Excavation

National Grid will start the clean-up in October.

In mid-October, National Grid begins a pilot test for its remediation plan to clean up toxic coal tar.

The coal tar has been leaking into the Gowanus Canal from the Public Place site, located between Smith Street and the Canal and Fifth and Huntington streets for decades.

National Grid made this announcement at a Community Board Six public safety, environmental protection and permits and licenses meeting Monday. The Department of Environmental Conservation, which is overseeing the clean-up of the "brownfield" site, was slated to attend the meeting, but said they could not make it due to Hurricane Irene over the weekend.  

The Public Place site along the Gowanus is heavily polluted and is now city-owned property. The 5.8-acre lot used to be a gas manufacturing plant, but now National Grid, under the supervision of the Department of Environmental Conservation, is responsible for the legacy costs to remove the hazardous toxic sludge. They also must prevent more coal tar from seeping into the Canal (which is a Superfund site under the care of the Environmental Protection Agency).

The purpose of National Grid’s pilot test is to assess the techniques and materials it has outlined in its remediation plan design — which is only 50 percent completed but has been green-lighted by the DEC — to collect data on their methods to prevent leakage and excavation of coal tar, its feasibility and safety. The data will be used to finish the design.

“We are cleaning [the Public Place site] one space at a time. We are cleaning this area to the best of our ability and so this site can be developed with any kind of building,” said Tracy Bell, who is the area manager for site investigation and remediation for National Grid.

The current plan is for 774 units of affordable housing to be built on the Public Place site, which has the community worried about the safety of the residents.  

So far National Grid, through excavation and 17 wells pumping coal tar out of the ground (as deep as 150 feet under the canal), has removed 7,000 gallons of the toxic sludge. They confirmed they have no idea how much tar is under the site and that they do not know how long it will take to fully remove it.

“We are here for the long haul,” said Michael Zukauskas, a National Grid representative.

The pilot will test the constructability and over-all performance of the steel sheeting pile, which is a metal barrier along the canal, forming an impermeable wall to make sure toxins do not leak out into the water; test the durability of the joints of the sheeting pile, to ensure no coal tar leaks at the joints; test the plastic vapor barrier cap, which is a plastic cap on the soil to prevent coal tar to plume up from the ground; excavate the first 8 feet of the soil on the site and replace it with new, clean soil; and test methods to move the sewer line on Bond Street.

Most community members at the meeting were happy with National Grid, but did call out the DEC and EPA, saying they give National Grid “the short end of the stick,” for they are doing all the work. The community wants to see more of an effort from the DEC.

“We want you to come back with the EPA and the DEC for the next meeting. We all want to coordinate, and ‘pray and sing from the same hymnal,’” said Steven Miller, a member of the Gowanus Canal Community Advisory Group. “We just want a good clean up and to be proud of our canal, not embarrassed of it.”

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