Sobering Facts Brought To Light At Gowanus Superfund Meeting

The EPA presents its Remedial Investigation results to the public at PS 32

“First, a warning,” Christos Tsiamis, Remedial Project Manager for the Gowanus Canal Superfund site, told the audience last night. “There will be a lot of numbers, and a lot of names of chemicals and graphs. So tighten your seatbelts and I’ll try to get you through it very safely.”

Tsiamis was about to take the nearly-packed auditorum of on a tour of the sobering realities uncovered by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Remedial Investigation Report. The public meeting was held to bring the facts of the complex, 144-page report into wider public understanding. 

“This process only works when the public is paying attention,” said Judith Enck, the EPA’s Regional 2 Director.

According to the report, released on February 2, . These include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and metals such as lead, mercury, barium, cadmium, copper, nickel and silver. The contamination affects the water and surface sediment, and also reaches in some troubling cases down into the lower sediment of the canal floor. The main pathway to human exposure is by eating fish and crabs from the canal, though contact with the water or sediment can present risks as well.

Amid the slideshow of graphs and maps of sampling locations, one thing became very clear: the cleanup will not be a quick or easy process.

Superfund Division Director Walter Mugdan noted at one point that the projected date for completion is 2020 or 2022. Tsiamis discussed a few of the structural issues that must be addressed before the cleanup can begin, including the poor condition of the canal’s bulkheads and the large amount of debris lying on the canal’s floor. 

And in perhaps an unsurprising move, the EPA admitted that the Superfund cleanup cannot address all of the problems plaguing the Gowanus.

The land on the banks of the Gowanus, heavily contaminated with coal tar waste, is outside the EPA’s jurisdiction, managed instead by the city and state. Solutions to keep contaminated groundwater from running off these upland sites into the canal must somehow be reached, or the canal will be continually recontaminated.

“From an engineering point of view, we cannot have a solution without seriously addressing the upland contamination,” said Tsiamis.

Mugdan also conceded that combined sewer outfalls (CSOs), which send raw sewage into the canal when the sewers overflow with rainwater, will likely remain a problem even as the cleanup unfolds. In addition to pathogens like e. coli that can be carried in wastewater, the EPA also found PAHs and metals in the CSO discharge.

“Everybody understands that the work that the city is now doing, and has now been obliged to do under the consent order it has with the State of New York, is not sufficient to achieve the regulatory and legal standards,” Mugdan said.

“I don’t predict that within ten years, you will have no sewage coming into the canal," he added.

A final, vexing issue that will have to be addressed once all the other concerns have been met is what to do with the contaminated sediments. In response to an audience member’s question about how the EPA will protect the community during the sediment removel process, Mugdan described the few options available for treatment of contaminated sediment, which invariably leave behind a toxic material that must be stored away somewhere.

“The answer is there’s no free lunch,” Mugdan said. “We’ve created these contaminants and there’s a limited number of ways to get rid of them.”

“None of the solutions are terribly attractive," he said. "And the only question is to whom are they most unattractive."


The full remedial investigation report can be viewed at the Carroll Gardens Library and online

William Harris February 24, 2011 at 05:27 PM
An excellent well written and accessible article into the giant toilet we live with. Recommend reading this with the fine piece on the Gowanus flushing tunnel appearing in today's (2/24) New York Times--the best and most comprehensive ever to be published. No, it won't be fun or easy to flush this one.
Georgia Kral February 24, 2011 at 06:54 PM
Thanks, William. That flushing tunnel article was great indeed, and the pictures were incredible!


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