Gowanus Canal

What’s a CAG?

By Aria Isberto

Gowanus Canal

Gowanus Canal

As an intern, I had the opportunity to attend a Community Advisory Group (CAG) meeting for the Gowanus Canal Superfund Site. Following Earth Day last month, days after activist Christopher Swain’s famed swim in the heavily polluted waterway, a spotlight was focused on the development of its ongoing cleanup. Members of the CAG and the community met, as they often do, to receive updates and to address vital concerns.

In the broadest sense, what I learned is that a CAG is one of the bridges between the federal agencies working on a Superfund site and its surrounding community. With a regularly held public forum, EPA and the CAG get to work together in the decision-making progress of the cleanup.

A CAG is made up of passionate community members of different backgrounds, representative of the diversity and interests of those affected. I observed that the meeting followed an agenda, led by a facilitator, with minutes taken and posted. The >Gowanus Canal CAG members are also organized into four sections of responsibility: Archaeology, Outreach, Real Estate, and Water Quality & Technical (but each CAG could vary depending on the need of its Superfund site).

I also discovered that there are two CAGs in New York City, 11 in EPA Region 2 and 66 nationwide. It is one of the most effective ways to connect, exchange information and meet face-to-face with the agencies responsible for the Superfund site. At the meeting I attended, EPA was represented by >Christos Tsiamis, Project Manager of the Gowanus Canal cleanup and Natalie Loney, Community Involvement Coordinator at Region 2.

After initial introductions, I knew I was in a room full of people with the same goal in mind: all wanted to make sure the cleanup of the Gowanus Canal happened, that it happened soon, and that there would be as few negative repercussions on the surrounding areas as possible. The room was represented by some staff from elected officials offices, groups such as Friends of St. Thomas Park, Langan Engineering (among many others – too many to list here!), as well as local residents.

People asked questions, voiced concerns, and presented a resolution to EPA, and I listened to the knowledgeable community members talk about the work on the Superfund site. The more technical details were immediately questioned and explained thoroughly. At the end of the meeting, it really struck me how important these CAGs are. Making sure that information about the Superfund site is accessible to all is a responsibility just as vital as the cleanup itself – and so is being aware about the matters that affect our communities!

To learn more about the Gowanus Canal Superfund site CAG, click here: the next meeting is on May 26th. Visit the EPA website to read about Community Advisory Groups, and find out how to be a part of one.

About the Author: Aria Isberto is an intern at the EPA Region 2 Public Affairs Division. Born and raised in Manila, Philippines, she currently resides in Manhattan and is an undergraduate student at Baruch College. Her passions include music, writing and learning about protecting the environment.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Superfund in the Big Apple

By Elias Rodriguez

New York City may soon notch a third site on the EPA’s Superfund list of the nation’s most hazardous waste sites. The candidate is the Wolff-Alport Chemical Company site, a defunct business that processed and sold minerals containing thorium from the 1920s to 1954 in Ridgewood, Queens. Wolff-Alport imported monazite sands, rich in thorium, from central Africa. The site is currently radioactively contaminated, although the risks from this residual radioactive contamination do not represent a health concern in the short-term, it could pose a health risk under certain long-term exposure scenarios. Additional investigation and remedial work is needed, so the EPA is proposing that Wolff-Alport be added to the National Priorities List of Superfund sites.

A lot of work has already been done at the site. The EPA installed protective shielding on portions of the site that will prevent nearby residents, employees and customers of area businesses from being exposed to elevated gamma radiation from below the surface. The shielding material included concrete, lead and steel, depending on the area.

Reporters often ask me to compare the cleanup work at the two other NYC Superfund sites, the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek.  The Gowanus Canal was built in the 19th century to ease the transport of goods and services. After its completion in the 1860s, the canal became a busy industrial waterway including manufactured gas plants, coal yards, concrete-mixing facilities, tanneries, chemical plants, and oil refineries. Sadly, it also became a giant receptacle for untreated industrial waste, raw sewage and runoff. EPA’s $506 million Gowanus cleanup will require the removal of contaminated sediment and the capping of dredged areas. The plan also includes controls to reduce sewage overflows and other land-based sources of pollution from ruining the cleanup.

Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal share a legacy of urban and industrial pollution as major arteries in the City’s transportation system. In the late 1800s and throughout most of the 1900s, Newtown was replete with sprawling oil refineries, petrochemical plants, factories, plants, sugar refineries, canneries, sawmills, and lumber and coal yards. Similarly, the creek is negatively impacted by discharges from combined sewer overflows and sewer treatment plants.

Where the Superfund sites differ significantly is in the status, or better said, where they are situated on the Superfund Roadmap.  In 2013, the EPA issued a Record of Decision for the Gowanus cleanup. This milestone document explains what cleanup alternatives the Agency has decided are the best choice to clean up a Superfund site. In the case of the Gowanus, the decision document came after the EPA held a 120-day period to receive public comments and hosted two formal public meetings. Prior to the Record of Decision, the Agency evaluated more than 1,800 e-mails, letters, postcards and petitions about the cleanup. Conversely, Newtown Creek is a few years away from a Record of Decision. Currently, the creek is undergoing assiduous sampling and study as part of the EPA’s Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Study. During this phase, the EPA will determine the nature and extent of contamination. This scientific work is expected to be completed in 2018 and would be followed by a proposed cleanup plan for the public’s consideration.

Another NYC site, the Radium Chemical Company site at 60-06 27th Avenue, Queens was on the Superfund list from 1989 to 1995 when the EPA led a successful cleanup of a radioactively-contaminated plant that no longer poses a threat to public health or the environment. It has since been delisted.

Naysayers claim that placing these sites on the Superfund list creates a stigma and is “bad for business.” Protecting human health and the environment is EPA’s first concern, but there is ample evidence to suggest that a Superfund cleanup can help communities and be a boon to local commerce by creating economic opportunity and using innovative technologies to mitigate contamination in a cost-effective manner. A cleanup also gives rise to redevelopment of an area that was once blighted, thus returning a contaminated property to the community and the tax rolls.

About the Author: Elias serves as EPA Region 2’s bilingual public information officer. Prior to joining EPA, the proud Nuyorican worked at Time Inc. conducting research for TIME, LIFE, FORTUNE and PEOPLE magazines. He is a graduate of Hunter College, Baruch College and the Theological Institute of the Assembly of Christian Churches in NYC.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Gaslight: Beautiful…But Dirty

By Walter Mugdan

In 1792 the Scottish engineer William Murdock pioneered the process of commercial coal gasification – that is, turning the solid lumps of hard, black mineral into gaseous form.  Murdock, a colleague of James Watt (of steam engine fame, not the former U.S. Secretary of Interior), heated coal in the absence of air, converting most of the coal to a gas similar to the natural gas that many of us use today heating and cooking.

Murdock’s purpose was to generate gas that could be used for lighting.  Within a few years gas lighting became common in factories in Britain.  By 1814, gas streetlights were being installed in London, and by 1819 close to 300 miles of pipe had been laid in that city to supply some 51,000 burners.  In 1816, a Murdock licensee, the Baltimore Gas Company, started the first coal gasification operation in America, also primarily for use in lighting.  For many decades, coal gas was the dominant fuel for indoor lighting, and for nearly a century it was dominant for urban street lighting.

More than 1500 gasification plants (known as “manufactured gas plants” or MGPs) operated in the U.S. in the past.  It was expensive to build the pipes and other infrastructure needed to convey the gas to homes and streetlights, so these plants were built in the midst of the densely populated urban areas near where the gas was used; New York City alone had several dozen.  The last MFG plant in New York State closed as recently as 1972.

Gaslight was quite beautiful – even romantic – and, of course, an amazing improvement over candles and oil lamps.  But coal gasification was a very messy business, leaving tarry residues loaded with what we now know to be toxic chemicals.  The coal tar wastes were routinely dumped on the ground.  Because the coal tar never really hardens, it tends to ooze its way down into the ground until it hits some obstruction (like bedrock), and then it moves sideways.  Because MGPs used lots of coal, most were built next to a commercial waterway for ease of delivery.  Consequently, those waterways are now often contaminated by the coal tar.

There are plenty of coal tar sites on the federal Superfund list and comparable state lists of contaminated sites.  In New York alone there are some 300 coal tar sites on the state’s hazardous waste site list.   (Nearly 200 of these have been or are being remediated.)  There were no less than 3 MGPs along the short 2-mile length of the infamous Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, which contributed to contaminant levels in the canal mud that are measured in parts per hundred (rather than the usual parts per million, billion or even trillion).

Coal gas eventually gave way to electricity as a means of producing light; and natural gas replaced coal gas for heating and cooking.  But the mess left behind by the MGPs remains a huge problem, requiring billions of dollars in cleanup costs.

About the Author: Since 2008 Walter has served as Superfund director for U.S. EPA Region 2, managing the region’s toxic waste cleanup, emergency response and brownfields programs.  For the previous six years he was director of the region’s air, water, hazardous waste and environmental review programs.  He joined Region 2 in 1975 as a staff attorney doing air pollution enforcement work.  From 1991 to 2002 he held various supervisory positions in the region’s legal office, culminating as Regional Counsel.  In his private life he heads a small, local conservation group in northeast Queens.  He enjoys bicycling, kayaking and hiking; and since 2010 he has been moonlighting as an Executive Producer (read: source of funding) for his daughter’s nascent career as an independent film maker.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Community Involvement + Superfund+ An Environmental Delegation from Delhi

By Melissa Dimas

New York City receives millions of visitors every year.  They come to see the Statue of Liberty, the Great White Way and the towering skyscrapers, but I’d like to think, and maybe it’s because I live here, that the people who reside in New York City and the communities they form are reason enough to visit New York City.

Last week, a delegation from India’s Ministry of Environment and Forest in Delhi, as well as the Pollution Control Board in West Bengal and Kolkata visited EPA Region 2 to tour three of our Superfund sites and the communities that surround them. In India, they are currently designing all aspects of their Superfund program and working on four pilot projects funded by the World Bank. During their tour, we highlighted the important role communities play in EPA’s Superfund process and we wanted the delegation to meet some of the New York City superfund community members.  At Newtown Creek, we met with Christine an active member of the community advisory group (CAG), at the Passaic River we met Darryl, a community member working on the actual clean up who received his job through EPA’s superfund job training initiative (SJTI), and at the Gowanus Canal we met Katia, a resident and blogger that helps keep the community informed about all things Gowanus.

The delegation was surprised to see how much EPA Region 2 interacts with the community throughout the Superfund process.  They were surprised that EPA’s cleanup process doesn’t just focus on removing contaminants, but also insures the impacted community has a voice in the process.  EPA’s Community Involvement Coordinators Wanda Ayala, David Kluesner, and Natalie Loney work hard to make sure the community is informed and the community’s voice is heard.  Working with amazing community members like Christine, Darryl, and Katia makes working in New York City as a Community Involvement Coordinator that much more satisfying.

So wherever you live, New York City, Delhi, or Djibouti think about how you participate in your community and how you can play an important role in bettering your community.

About the Author: Melissa Dimas is the International Affairs Program Manager in Region 2. She works with environmental ministries in Latin America to increase public participation and access to environmental information. Melissa joined EPA in 2006. Prior to working at EPA, she received a Masters of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy from Columbia University and was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the beautiful country of El Salvador.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Gowanus Cleanup – EPA Lays the Gauntlet

By Sophia Kelley and Elias Rodriguez

Everyone who’s ever seen the patches of rainbow-hued slicks on its surface or taken a whiff after a heavy rain knows that Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal is filthy. The canal is so filthy, in fact, that it was added to the Superfund list of the country’s most hazardous waste sites. Earlier this month, EPA released a study of the options for cleaning up the chemical contamination and last night a public meeting was held to discuss the investigation.

The newly completed feasibility study evaluates the technologies that could be used to clean up the canal, and will be used to develop a cleanup plan for the Gowanus. Last night, nearly 200 people attended a public meeting at the stuffy auditorium of Brooklyn’s P.S. 58. ATSDR, State, City and local officials also participated. The good seats filled early. A background discussion was followed by a comprehensive presentation of the seven remedial alternatives laid out in the study. The goal was not to choose a cleanup plan (that step will come later in 2012), but rather to discuss the “array of technologies” and options that are available to address the contaminated sediment in the canal. Slide after slide of charts, tables and graphs of information were punctuated by the occasional photograph of the canal and technologies that have worked at similar sites across the nation. The crowd gasped when a close up shot of a floating fish carcass popped up as a graphic reminder of what’s at stake. “Is that a whale?” asked a front bencher. “Disgusting,” proclaimed another audience member. 

EPA’s Walter Mugdan answers questions at last night's Gowanus Canal meeting.

EPA’s Walter Mugdan, the director of the Superfund program and Christos Tsiamis, the project manager patiently answered all the questions posed during the lively question and answer session.  “Who’s going to pay for all of this?” A: the parties responsible (24 entities and counting) for the pollution will pay. “What about water quality?” A: It’s important, but being addressed under the Clean Water Act, not primarily Superfund. “Will the City government live up to its obligations as a responsible party?” A: ‘We expect the City to do the right thing’ said EPA.  

After more than two hours the debate was concluded. Public participation is a vital part of the Superfund process and last night’s well informed and actively engaged crowd was proof positive that the EPA welcomes community involvement as part of the multimillion dollar cleanup of the Gowanus Canal.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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SuperFun on the Gowanus Canal


By Kasia Broussalian

The Gowanus Dredgers, a small volunteer organization that is dedicated to providing the public information and access to the Gowanus Canal waterfront, canoe downstream the Gowanus Canal. Running a stretch of 1.8 miles through Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn, New York, the canal was recently added to the National Priorities List and officially became an EPA Superfund site in March 2010. This has paved the way for a scheduled cleanup process of the decades-old contamination. This picture was taken during the Gowanus community’s “SuperFUN Party,” an awareness event hosted by the Dredgers in order to stir up support for the cleanup of the canal. I shot this picture on top of a bridge, near sunset. The juxtaposition between the beauty of the light reflecting off the water, and the old factory buildings, gave me a feeling of nostalgia; of grit and grime from decades past, beautiful despite their neglect. The Gowanus Canal Superfund site is unique because of its level of community involvement and support for the cleanup. Specifically, the Gowanus Dredgers have logged over 2,000 canoe trips throughout the past season, and hope that an increase in the waterfront’s popularity will prompt the local community to become advocates for the canal’s revitalization and cleanup.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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