The Real (E)State of the Gowanus Canal Superfund Site

By Elias Rodriguez

Gowanus Canal

Gowanus Canal

One of the most attention getting cleanup sites in our region is indubitably the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, NY. The canal is located near the communities of Gowanus, Park Slope, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens and Red Hook. The waterbody discharges into New York Harbor. Since the 1800s, the canal was once a major industrial transportation route. Manufactured gas plants, mills, tanneries, and chemical plants are among the many facilities that operated along the canal. As a result of over 100 years of discharges, storm water runoff, sewer outflows and industrial pollutants, the Gowanus Canal has become one of the nation’s most extensively contaminated waterways.

EPA’s years of investigation of the canal confirmed what many already suspected- the widespread presence of a chemical cornucopia that includes polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and various metals, including mercury and lead, at high levels in the sediment in the Gowanus Canal.

Polychlorinated biphenyls had been widely used in hundreds of industrial and commercial applications until they were banned in 1979. Electrical equipment such as capacitors and transformers, as well as many other consumer and industrials products, may contain polychlorinated biphenyls. More than 1.5 billion pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls were manufactured in the United States before the EPA banned their use with very narrow exceptions. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are a group of chemicals that are formed during the incomplete burning of coal, oil, gas, wood, garbage, or other organic substances and can cause cancer. Mercury can lead to a variety of health problems, including nervous system damage. Lead is a toxic metal that can cause damage to a child’s ability to learn and a range of health problems in adults. What’s the precise risk? Like other pollutants, the extent and nature of the health effect will depend on many factors, including the level and length of exposure.

One thing is certain, the Gowanus canal, once derided as Lavander Lake, needs a serious cleanup! Our 2013 Record of Decision (government-speak for EPA’s final cleanup plan) includes removing contaminated sediment that has accumulated as a result of industrial and sewer discharges from the bottom of the canal by dredging. The dredged areas will be capped. The plan also includes controls to prevent combined sewer overflows, or CSOs, and other land-based sources of contamination from compromising the cleanup. The cost of the cleanup plan is estimated to be $506 million.

Interestingly, the EPA’s designation of the canal as a Superfund site has not depressed the local real estate market. Brooklyn is still booming with interest. More broadly, the folks at Duke University took a scholarly look at the relationship between Superfund designation and real estate in a working paper entitled, ”Does cleanup of hazardous waste sites raise housing values?

Although the first and foremost purpose of a Superfund cleanup is to protect human health and the environment, a co-benefit is often redevelopment and productive reuse, which can lead to positive economic ripple effects. EPA is currently in the remedial design phase of the Gowanus Canal project. The design work is expected to continue into 2016 followed by the start of dredging. Progress is incremental but the future looks less ‘lavender’ for Gowanus!

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.

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