Why the Gowanus should be a Superfund site
Submitted by Dr. Tom Angotti
I am a Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of New York, and Director of the Hunter College Center for Community Planning and Development. I am a native of Brooklyn, and as a senior planner with the New York City Department of City Planning was responsible for studies of land use and zoning along the Brooklyn waterfront, including the Gowanus Canal. I have written extensively on community planning, environment and sustainability in New York City and beyond.
I am deeply concerned about the future of the Gowanus area. It is one of the most contaminated in New York City and I find it troubling that after so many years of concern by residents and workers in the area, city government has yet to carry out a thorough study that looks at the long-term effects of the contamination on the health of people who live and work in the area. Nor does the city have an adequate strategy to clean it up the Canal. Designation of a Superfund Site would bring to bear the missing attention and resources and while it will not resolve all environmental and health problems it will bring us much closer than New York City’s limited efforts.
The proposal to rezone the area advanced by New York City Department of City Planning (DCP) can derail efforts to improve the environment. It is not based on any careful scientific study of contamination, the long-term effects of climate change and sea-level rise, or existing and future impacts on human health and local ecosystems. The rezoning responds to proposals for new residential development and would limit existing and potential industrial uses. DCP claims that as sites get redeveloped property owners will be required to clean them up. However, environmental impact statements (EIS) for individual sites, even large sites, will not produce the kind of remediation needed to make the Gowanus safe for residents and workers. First of all the EIS is a disclosure document. Applicants are required to disclose potential impacts; they are not required to remediate pre-existing conditions, nor are they even required to mitigate unhealthy conditions that are created by their own projects. And site-specific mitigation may very well lead to the migration of toxic waste to other sites and increase public exposures to unhealthy conditions. The EIS is so inadequate as a tool for environmental improvement that specialists at both the conservative Manhattan Institute’s Center for Rethinking Development and my Center, on the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum, agree that it needs a major overhaul.
Even as shipping declined and industries continued operating in the Gowanus area, residual wastes have became part of a vast pool of contamination that does not obey the boundary lines of the multiple property owners in the area. Currents shift and waste migrates below the surface, and the Gowanus has become one large toxic wasteland. This is why any effort to remediate the Gowanus cannot be simply based on site-by-site remediation. And this is why remediation of the world’s largest oil spill below our very own Greenpoint in Brooklyn is based not on site-by-site remediation but on a comprehensive cleanup. The Gowanus deserves no less.
City government also wants us to believe that the current plan by its Department of Environmental Protection to flush out the Canal, once it is fully implemented, will constitute an adequate cleanup. However, flushing out the canal will not remove the toxic sediment in the canal or prevent leeching into surrounding properties. It will not resolve the long-term problem of contaminated Combined Sewer Overflows. It will not make further development around the Gowanus Canal safe for people who live and work there.
We hear the argument that even if Superfund cleanup might be better if will take too long and in the meantime prevent new development, which is supposed to mean more jobs and housing units. This is a reckless way of treating public health hazards. It can also result in a net loss of jobs as residential uses replace industry. New residential development within breathing distance of the Gowanus Canal will place many more people at risk of chronic diseases such as cancer and respiratory illnesses. Government has not adequately studied existing levels of exposure or projected future levels of exposure. This is needed so that the public can make informed judgments about whether or not to develop, where to develop, and the precautionary measures that need to be taken.
Mayor Bloomberg’s long-term sustainability plan, PlaNYC2030, is a major challenge to short-term thinking which does not take into account the long-term quality of our environment and the health of the public. Rezoning the Gowanus now is a short-term tactic at a time when we need the 2030 plan’s long-term thinking. We have seen what short-term thinking has done in the past. It created contaminated industrial waste sites in the first place. It created a major financial crisis that left many neighborhoods with foreclosed properties and empty apartments.
Now global warming and sea-level rise are forcing all of us to think long-term and to re-think the way the city grows. That is yet another reason that the Gowanus should not be developed as proposed. Our best science suggests that much of the area targeted for new development could be under water by the middle of the century. The cost of building above the future flood level – whatever that might be -- would no doubt be daunting and surely limit affordability. Common sense dictates that we plan for future development in areas less vulnerable to natural disasters and better able to support development.
Finally, this is perhaps a time to put an end to the bleeding of industrial jobs in New York City at the hands of rezoning for large-scale real estate development. With the flight of financial sector jobs and real estate capital, our city’s economy would be much stronger if we had more industry to fall back on. Only 3% of our work force is in manufacturing, one of the lowest of any major city in the United States. If our industrial and mixed-use communities had not been rezoned for residential development and we had retained our historic economic diversity, we might have retained more jobs.
In the 1980s DCP acknowledged in a major study that the Gowanus area was one of the most vital industrial zones in the city and in the 1990s designated it a Significant Maritime and Industrial Area. The March 11, 2009 statement of the Municipal Art Society summarizes existing evidence and makes a strong case for a more careful and cautionary approach to rezoning and planning.
In conclusion, I support nomination of the Gowanus as a Superfund site and oppose DCP’s proposed rezoning proposal.
Tom Angotti, Ph.D.
Director, Center for Community Planning & Development
Hunter College, HW1611
695 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10065