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Brown Canals NYC: Federal Ruling Tasks Bloomberg, Developers With Putting the “Fun” in Superfund in Gowanus

Gowanus CanalTo say that Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal “rolls through Red Hook, Carroll Gardens and Park Slope” is inaccurate. It doesn’t even loll, really. The Gowanus Canal just sort of sprawls, slack and flat and brown and grease-slicked and awash in pesticides, PCBs and metals, across 1.8 miles in South Brooklyn. It is one of the most polluted waterways in the United States, which is a fact that essentially no one disputes. So in one sense, it’s not a surprise to read that the Gowanus Canal was tagged a Superfund site by the EPA on Tuesday. If there has ever been a more deserving Superfund site it… well, it would’ve had to have been pretty freaking nightmarish. But while the Gowanus is certainly apocalyptic enough in its noxiousness to deserve the Superfund label, there were some in New York City — including Mayor Bloomberg and several big real estate developers — who fought against that designation. Some of this is easily explained — the Toll Brothers at one point planned a 600,000-square-foot mixed-use development (with a freaking esplanade) along the Gowanus; Michael Bloomberg has almost certainly never been to Brooklyn — but what’s the debate, here?

It’s not quite as one-sided as it might seem. Yes, to a certain degree this comes down to Mega-Developers and Bloomberg looking to find a faster, less-binding way around the very obvious need to clean up the Gowanus before the frontier-y neighborhood around it can be developed. In the New York Times, Mireya Navarro notes that the city had already committed to $175 million in “upgrades of its sewage pump and sewer system to reduce overflows into the canal,” which is nice, and was working with the Army Corps of Engineers in formulating a cleanup strategy. The Superfund-grade cleanup, which is expected to come to about $300 million and take over a decade — five years to formulate a plan, five years to do the dredging and such — will enfold those city efforts. It will, however, lose what EPA administrator Judith Enck termed “financial uncertainty” of the city’s plan, which involved polluters “voluntarily” paying for the cleanup and copious government funds. Given that New York City itself is among the polluters named as responsible for the state of the Gowanus in the first place — the U.S. Navy and Con Ed are among the others — it does seem like something of a conflict.

It’s possible, perhaps, that the city’s plan would’ve done as good or better a job than a full-on Superfund cleanup. (It’s also worth mentioning that dredging-based Superfund cleanups have some problems of their own) I certainly doubt it, but more than that I doubt that the Superfund designation is going to derail development efforts in the area. For one thing, all development efforts in New York City are slow right now, and for another… well, it’s the Gowanus, and everyone knows what that means. No one in Brooklyn did a spit-take after reading about the Superfund designation, is what I’m saying. Even people who have never even been to Brooklyn — again, Mayor Bloomberg comes to mind — know that “Gowanus” and “Superfund” have been essentially synonymous for years now. Even Judith Enck knows that. “Ms. Enck rejected arguments that the designation would keep investors and lenders away,” Navarro writes in the Times. “‘Banks look at the environmental conditions of the properties,’ she said at a meeting with reporters last week. ‘It is not a secret in Brooklyn that the Gowanus is contaminated. The notion that Superfund is going to create a stigma just doesn’t hold up.’”

No, it doesn’t. A cleaner Gowanus canal is difficult to imagine, naturally, but good things are already happening there, and the prospect of it remaining one of Brooklyn’s last under-overdeveloped frontiers — or at least waiting a decade or so for those esplanade-enhanced luxury condos — doesn’t really seem like anything to mourn. Unless the Superfund cleanup impacts the Gowanus Yacht Club in any way. Then I’ll see you on the barricades.

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